Why Activists Today Should Still Care About the 40-Year-Old Church Committee Report

The Church Committee Report reveals the lengths the government was willing to go in order to crush grassroots activism and spy on American citizens.

Branko Marcetic May 3, 2016

(Frank Church Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Boise State University)

Today, if you go on Twit­ter, you can find the NSA tweet­ing about its com­mit­ment to recy­cling, or the CIA jok­ing about still not know­ing the where­abouts of Tupac. Why are these once-sin­is­ter and lit­tle-known spy agen­cies so eager to put on a friend­ly face for us? The answer can be traced back to the Church Com­mit­tee of 1975 – 76, which for­ev­er changed the way Amer­i­cans looked at the intel­li­gence agen­cies meant to serve them.

Less talked about today are programs like the military’s surveillance of domestic protest groups, maintaining files on at least 100,000 Americans ranging from Jesse Jackson to Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, or the FBI’s “Custodial Detention List,” a list kept by the FBI of foreigners and citizens to be immediately detained in case war broke out.

Last week marked 40 years since the final report of the Church Com­mit­tee was released to the pub­lic. You can read its report here. Set up in Jan­u­ary 1975 in the wake of Water­gate, and short­ly after inves­tiga­tive reporter Sey­mour Hersh revealed the CIA’s role in not only under­min­ing for­eign gov­ern­ments but in spy­ing on U.S. cit­i­zens, the Com­mit­tee spent 16 months trawl­ing through clas­si­fied and unclas­si­fied doc­u­ments and grilling hun­dreds of coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence offi­cers, CIA direc­tors, FBI high­er-ups and oth­er offi­cials in order to shine a light on the scope of the intel­li­gence community’s abus­es over the pre­vi­ous decades.

The result was an unprece­dent­ed pub­lic spot­light on the shad­owy world of Amer­i­can intel­li­gence that for­ev­er altered the public’s per­cep­tion of the Unit­ed States’ var­i­ous intel­li­gence agen­cies. This was par­tic­u­lar­ly so with the NSA, whose role and even exis­tence was lit­tle-known among the pub­lic pri­or to the Committee’s revelations.

More impor­tant was what the Com­mit­tee actu­al­ly revealed. Its final report, released on April 26, 1976, detailed a stun­ning­ly broad scope of law­less­ness and abus­es by the intel­li­gence world, which had, under suc­ces­sive pres­i­dents, turned its con­sid­er­able pow­ers increas­ing­ly on the Amer­i­can peo­ple them­selves. Agen­cies like the CIA and FBI appeared to be act­ing as gov­ern­ments in them­selves, flout­ing legal restraints as they ran pro­grams that elect­ed offi­cials, even right up to the pres­i­dent, were kept in the dark about.

Most accounts of the Church Com­mit­tee tend to focus on cer­tain now-infa­mous pro­grams that have become emblem­at­ic of agency abus­es. There was the FBI’s COIN­TEL­PRO, a pro­gram of covert action launched against the social move­ments of the 1960s and 1970s, per­ceived to be home-grown threats to the social and polit­i­cal order. The pro­gram bald­ly attempt­ed to dis­rupt and destroy social move­ments like the Black Pan­thers and Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety. It also hatched bizarre schemes like a plan pro­posed by the FBI to hit print­ing plants with a sub­stance dupli­cat­ing a scent of the most foul smelling feces avail­able.” Accord­ing to the report, at least 18 per­cent of the pro­gram square­ly tar­get­ed speak­ers, teach­ers, writ­ers and meet­ings or peace­ful demon­stra­tions, as opposed to crim­i­nal activity.

There was also the FBI’s war­rant­less wire­tap­ping pro­gram, the NSA’s war­rant­less col­lec­tion of telegrams and oth­er inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions and the CIA and FBI’s mail open­ing pro­grams, which in one case saw more than 215,000 pieces of mail get opened, pho­tographed and filed. Many of these pro­grams were inces­tu­ous, with the result­ing infor­ma­tion being shared among var­i­ous intel­li­gence agen­cies and gov­ern­ment departments.

Less talked about today are pro­grams like the military’s sur­veil­lance of domes­tic protest groups, main­tain­ing files on at least 100,000 Amer­i­cans rang­ing from Jesse Jack­son to Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, or the FBI’s Cus­to­di­al Deten­tion List,” a list kept by the FBI of for­eign­ers and cit­i­zens to be imme­di­ate­ly detained in case war broke out. Per­haps most shock­ing was the Hus­ton Plan, which in the report’s words called for the high­est polit­i­cal fig­ure in the nation to sanc­tion law­less­ness with­in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty” — name­ly, relax­ing the rules around sur­veil­lance of U.S. cit­i­zens and allow­ing agen­cies to break into tar­gets’ homes, among oth­er things. The mea­sures were briefly autho­rized by Nixon, until J. Edgar Hoover con­vinced the pres­i­dent to change his mind, out of fear that the mea­sures would be dis­cov­ered and he per­son­al­ly would be thrown under the bus.

The Committee’s wide-rang­ing rev­e­la­tions prompt­ed what is often viewed as a sea-change in how intel­li­gence agen­cies oper­ate. In 1978, Con­gress passed the For­eign Intel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act (FISA), cre­at­ing a secret court to issue war­rants for domes­tic spy­ing. The FISA Court is com­mon­ly thought-of as the Committee’s great­est lega­cy, estab­lish­ing much-need­ed over­sight of the country’s intel­li­gence agen­cies, which had run roughshod over Amer­i­cans’ civ­il liberties.

In real­i­ty, the tan­gi­ble lega­cy of the Com­mit­tee is far more ambigu­ous. The FISA Court today is wide­ly seen as lit­tle more than a rub­ber stamp, declin­ing just 0.3 per­cent of the sur­veil­lance requests that have come its way over the last 33 years. Even then, when it came to the most con­tro­ver­sial pre-Snow­den sur­veil­lance mea­sure — the Bush administration’s post‑9/​11 war­rant­less wire­tap­ping pro­gram — the gov­ern­ment sim­ply bypassed the court. Not only that, but if any­thing, domes­tic sur­veil­lance has inten­si­fied since the Com­mit­tee com­plet­ed its work, with the NSA today scoop­ing up and stor­ing untold amounts of Amer­i­cans’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions data far more inti­mate and reveal­ing than that which so con­cerned the Com­mit­tee four decades before. Only a few days ago, the Supreme Court grant­ed the FBI the pow­er to hack into poten­tial­ly mil­lions of com­put­ers with a sin­gle war­rant. And these are just the things we know about.

How should the Committee’s lega­cy be seen in this light then? What are its accom­plish­ments if not the com­pre­hen­sive rolling back of state surveillance?

The Church Committee’s true val­ue lies in the lessons we can glean from its find­ings. More than any prac­ti­cal effects on gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy, and even more than the way it changed the Amer­i­can public’s per­cep­tion of the U.S. intel­li­gence appa­ra­tus, it is the pre­scient nature of its warn­ings about the pow­er of the deep state that form its most last­ing legacy.

Pow­ers meant for nation­al secu­ri­ty are almost invari­ably turned against domes­tic populations

Many of the pro­grams detailed in the Church Committee’s report began as efforts to thwart for­eign threats to secu­ri­ty. How­ev­er, it didn’t take long before a com­bi­na­tion of mis­sion creep and dete­ri­o­rat­ing social con­di­tions — name­ly, the rise of protest move­ments and ter­ror­ist acts — led intel­li­gence agen­cies to turn their all-see­ing gaze inward.

Vague terms such as sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties,’ nation­al inter­est,’ domes­tic secu­ri­ty,’ and nation­al secu­ri­ty’ were relied upon to elec­tron­i­cal­ly mon­i­tor many indi­vid­u­als who engaged in no crim­i­nal activ­i­ty and who, by any objec­tive stan­dard, rep­re­sent­ed no gen­uine threat to the secu­ri­ty of the Unit­ed States,” the report states about the FBI’s war­rant­less wire­tap­ping program.

The Com­mit­tee rec­og­nized the vast poten­tial for abuse in these pro­grams, warn­ing that the NSA’s vast tech­no­log­i­cal capa­bil­i­ty … could be turned against the Amer­i­can peo­ple, at great cost to lib­er­ty.” An unlike­ly cham­pi­on of this view was Tom Hus­ton, the for­mer White House aide who in 1970 had pushed Nixon to autho­rize the Hus­ton Plan, broad­en­ing the sur­veil­lance pow­ers of var­i­ous intel­li­gence agen­cies (not know­ing that some of these agen­cies had secret­ly been using such pow­ers for years). Five years lat­er, this was his view:

The risk was that you would get peo­ple who would be sus­cep­ti­ble to polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions as opposed to nation­al secu­ri­ty con­sid­er­a­tions … to move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a pick­et sign, and from the kid with the pick­et sign to the kid with the bumper stick­er of the oppos­ing can­di­date. And you just keep going down the line.

The Com­mit­tee has only been vin­di­cat­ed in this respect by sub­se­quent events, whether in the NYPD’s spy­ing on peace­ful Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties or the huge quan­ti­ties of high-tech mil­i­tary equip­ment meant for war that have been turned over to local police departments.

Those in any way dis­sent­ing from the social order are the most like­ly targets

The stan­dard defense of state sur­veil­lance is that if you’ve got noth­ing to hide, you’ve got noth­ing to fear.” For most peo­ple, this is an easy stance to take giv­en that, on the whole, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple are like­ly not tar­gets of state sur­veil­lance. Rather, as the Church Committee’s final report, laid out, it’s those chal­leng­ing pow­er struc­tures, or even sim­ply devi­at­ing from estab­lished norms, who are most like­ly to be seen as enemies.

Whether FBI, CIA, NSA or the mil­i­tary, the var­i­ous domes­tic coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence pro­grams uncov­ered by the Com­mit­tee tend­ed to share vir­tu­al­ly the same tar­gets. They were mem­bers of the broad New Left” — which the FBI couldn’t define, except as more or less an atti­tude” — mem­bers of var­i­ous com­mu­nist and social­ist par­ties, domes­tic dis­si­dents and anti­war pro­test­ers. While the pro­grams also tar­get­ed white suprema­cist groups like the KKK, they were by far most con­cerned with mem­bers of the increas­ing­ly mil­i­tant Left, which they sus­pect­ed of being under for­eign influence.

Thanks to these broad labels, the tar­gets of the government’s coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence pro­grams end­ed up envelop­ing sci­en­tists, aca­d­e­mics study­ing the Sovi­et Union, authors like John Stein­beck, and two stu­dent free speech pro­test­ers defend­ing the use of the clas­sic four-let­ter word,” because it shows obvi­ous dis­re­gard for decen­cy and estab­lished moral­i­ty.” It even involved some­thing as pet­ty as pres­sur­ing stu­dent news­pa­pers to change their content.

How­ev­er, with civ­il lib­er­ties and pri­va­cy con­tin­u­ing to be per­ceived as a white, mid­dle-class issue, it’s these pro­grams’ zero­ing in on civ­il rights groups and Black Nation­al­ist Hate Groups” (which in the FBI’s mind includ­ed Mar­tin Luther King’s South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence and most black stu­dent groups”) that is per­haps most notable.

Most peo­ple today know about the FBI’s vin­dic­tive harass­ment of Mar­tin Luther King uncov­ered by the Com­mit­tee, which includ­ed every­thing from spy­ing on King to send­ing him threat­en­ing let­ters and attempt­ing to dis­cred­it him in the eyes of sup­port­ers. But this was just the tip of the ice­berg. The FBI ille­gal­ly wire­tapped Mal­colm X, Huey New­ton and oth­er black extrem­ist lead­ers,” as well as Puer­to Rican nation­al­ist groups and pro-Pales­tin­ian orga­ni­za­tions. It aimed to neu­tral­ize” peace­ful civ­il rights groups like the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee and CORE, while the Army spied on and kept files on activists like Julian Bond and Wal­ter Fauntroy.

As the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment con­tin­ues to move for­ward, and orga­ni­za­tions like BYP 100 and immi­grant rights groups con­tin­ue to chal­lenge those in pow­er, it’s instruc­tive to recall that intel­li­gence agen­cies have tra­di­tion­al­ly viewed non-white dis­si­dents as espe­cial­ly threat­en­ing and wor­thy of their atten­tion. (Indeed, jour­nal­ists have revealed that these move­ments have been close­ly mon­i­tored by gov­ern­ment author­i­ties in recent years.)

Sur­veil­lance is a threat to a free press

Despite his recent cham­pi­oning of the free press, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has been large­ly hos­tile to the role of jour­nal­ism in today’s Unit­ed States. He’s gone after leak­ers and whistle­blow­ers like no one since Nixon, and even used the U.S. secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus against mem­bers of the press. And now, the rise of Trump has got peo­ple won­der­ing what press free­dom would look like under the admin­is­tra­tion of a thin-skinned, para­noid, media-hat­ing dem­a­gogue with all the pow­ers of the mod­ern sur­veil­lance state at his disposal.

The find­ings of the Church Com­mit­tee give us some indi­ca­tion. Accord­ing to the Committee’s final report, near­ly 30 Amer­i­cans were wire­tapped by the FBI between 1960 and 1972 as part of an effort to dis­cov­er the source of leaks of clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion, sev­en of which were jour­nal­ists. Nixon was respon­si­ble for 17 of these wire­taps, after the New York Times pub­lished a report on the administration’s secret bomb­ing of Cam­bo­dia. Nixon even had his own speech­writer wire­tapped after he agreed to give a reporter back­ground infor­ma­tion about a speech on wel­fare reform.

It would be a mis­take to think this behav­ior was lim­it­ed to Nixon. Kennedy had a Newsweek reporter sur­veyed after he wrote an arti­cle the admin­is­tra­tion believed was based on clas­si­fied intel­li­gence, while Johnson’s attor­ney gen­er­al had an anti-Com­mu­nist newsletter’s edi­tor wire­tapped for the same offense.

The les­son is clear: When grant­ed the abil­i­ty to inves­ti­gate leaks by sur­vey­ing mem­bers of the press, those in pow­er will invari­ably use it.

War and a sense of embat­tle­ment increas­es the like­li­hood of abuse

The find­ings of the Church Com­mit­tee made clear that the sur­veil­lance appa­ra­tus set up by the Unit­ed States, and the men­tal­i­ty that under­pinned its abuse, could not have exist­ed with­out the Unit­ed States’ pol­i­cy of end­less war.

William C. Sul­li­van, for­mer assis­tant to the FBI direc­tor, told the Com­mit­tee regard­ing the FBI’s pro­grams against domes­tic groups: We have used [these tech­niques] against Sovi­et agents. … [The same meth­ods were] brought home against any orga­ni­za­tion against which we were tar­get­ed.” As the report put it, what works against one ene­my will work against another.”

Sul­li­van explained that the agen­cies’ dis­re­gard of the law was an inher­i­tance of the war psy­chol­o­gy” of the 1940s, when law­ful­ness was not a ques­tion.” He elaborated:

Along came the Cold War. We pur­sued the same course in the Kore­an War, and the Cold War con­tin­ued, then the Viet­nam War. We nev­er freed our­selves from that psy­chol­o­gy that we were indoc­tri­nat­ed with, right after Pearl Har­bor, you see.

As the old estab­lished order appeared to be crum­bling at home, this cre­at­ed a volatile mix­ture. Although Amer­i­cans view ter­ror­ism as one of the most press­ing threats to their way of life today, the actu­al amount of ter­ror­ist attacks tak­ing place in the Unit­ed States today pales in com­par­i­son to the 1970s, when anti­war, reli­gious and nation­al­ist orga­ni­za­tions car­ried out dozens of bomb­ings and attacks on police.

Cou­pled with the growth of protest move­ments and their increas­ing rad­i­cal­ism, as well as a string of riots in 1970, and it’s clear that gov­ern­ment offi­cials began to see civil­ian pop­u­la­tions as the ene­my. Cer­tain­ly hun­dreds, per­haps thou­sands, of Amer­i­cans — most­ly under 30 — are deter­mined to destroy our soci­ety,” read a talk­ing-paper pro­duced for the pres­i­dent in 1970. FBI Direc­tor Clarence M. Kel­ley told the Com­mit­tee that sit­u­a­tions have occurred in the past and will arise in the future when the gov­ern­ment may well be expect­ed to depart from its tra­di­tion­al role … and take affir­ma­tive steps which are need­ed to meet an immi­nent threat to human life or property.”

Such atti­tudes pro­duced equal­ly rad­i­cal mea­sures. The Army jus­ti­fied its ille­gal domes­tic sur­veil­lance pro­gram on the basis that it need­ed such infor­ma­tion in the late 1960s to enable it to pre­pare for sit­u­a­tions in which it was called upon to put down civ­il dis­tur­bances.” As he dis­cussed with Nixon the pos­si­bil­i­ty of autho­riz­ing sur­rep­ti­tious entry,” Tom Hus­ton admit­ted it was clear­ly ille­gal: it amounts to bur­glary,” but that it is also the most fruit­ful tool.”

While the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the col­lapse of social order today does not rival that of the 1970s, what’s more impor­tant is the per­cep­tion. The U.S. gov­ern­ment has already put in place a sprawl­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty state worth more than $1 tril­lion annu­al­ly after one ter­ror­ist attack, while Islam­o­pho­bia is on the rise thanks to con­stant warn­ings of ter­ror­ist infil­tra­tion and sleep­er cells, putting ordi­nary Mus­lims in dan­ger of being viewed as the ene­my.” As long as the war on ter­ror” con­tin­ues, so will the poten­tial for abuse.

When it comes to the law­less­ness of the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty that was uncov­ered by the Church Com­mit­tee, there’s a temp­ta­tion to view such mat­ters as hav­ing hap­pened once in the past and being impos­si­ble now. Yet the abus­es we already know about — whether it’s the FBI’s entrap­ment of young Mus­lim men, the Oba­ma administration’s sur­veil­lance of a Fox News reporter or NSA employ­ees’ pass­ing around of nude pho­tos and spy­ing on love inter­ests—demon­strate that the Church Committee’s fears four decades ago are just as rel­e­vant now. Every­one is wor­ried about Don­ald Trump becom­ing the next Hitler. Why aren’t we wor­ried the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty will go back to its old tricks?

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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