The Church Committee (formally the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) was a U.S. Senate select committee in 1975 that investigated abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church (D-ID), the committee was part of a series of investigations into intelligence abuses in 1975, dubbed the "Year of Intelligence", including its House counterpart, the Pike Committee, and the presidential Rockefeller Commission. The committee's efforts led to the establishment of the permanent U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
By the early years of the 1970s, a series of troubling revelations had appeared in the press concerning intelligence activities. First came the revelations by Army intelligence officer Christopher Pyle in January 1970 of the U.S. Army's spying on the civilian population and Senator Sam Ervin's Senate investigations produced more revelations. Then on December 22, 1974, The New York Times published a lengthy article by Seymour Hersh detailing operations engaged in by the CIA over the years that had been dubbed the "family jewels". Covert action programs involving assassination attempts on foreign leaders and covert attempts to subvert foreign governments were reported for the first time. In addition, the article discussed efforts by intelligence agencies to collect information on the political activities of US citizens.
The Church Committee's final report was published in April 1976 in six books. Also published were seven volumes of Church Committee hearings in the Senate.
Before the release of the final report, the committee also published an interim report titled "Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders", which investigated alleged attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of Zaire, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and Fidel Castro of Cuba. President Gerald Ford urged the Senate to withhold the report from the public, but failed, and under recommendations and pressure by the committee, Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (ultimately replaced in 1981 by President Reagan's Executive Order 12333) to ban U.S. sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders.
In addition, the committee produced seven case studies on covert operations, but only the one on Chile was released, titled "Covert Action in Chile: 1963-1973". The rest were kept secret at CIA's request.
According to recently declassified documents by the National Security Archive, the Church Committee also helped to uncover the NSA's Watch List. The information for the list was compiled into the so-called "Rhyming Dictionary" of biographical information, which at its peak held millions of names - thousands of which were US citizens. Some prominent members of this list were Joanne Woodward, Thomas Watson, Walter Mondale, Art Buchwald, Arthur F. Burns, Gregory Peck, Otis G. Pike, Tom Wicker, Whitney Young, Howard Baker, Frank Church, David Dellinger, Ralph Abernathy, and others.
But among the most shocking revelations of the committee was the discovery of Operation SHAMROCK, in which the major telecommunications companies shared their traffic with the NSA from 1945 to the early 1970s. The information gathered in this operation fed directly into the Watch List. In 1975, the committee decided to unilaterally declassify the particulars of this operation, against the objections of President Ford's administration.
Together, the Church Committee's reports have been said to constitute the most extensive review of intelligence activities ever made available to the public. Much of the contents were classified, but over 50,000 pages were declassified under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.
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The Church Committee learned that, beginning in the 1950s, the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation had intercepted, opened and photographed more than 215,000 pieces of mail by the time the program (called "HTLINGUAL") was shut down in 1973. This program was all done under the "mail covers" program (a mail cover is a process by which the government records--without any requirement for a warrant or for notification--all information on the outside of an envelope or package, including the name of the sender and the recipient). The Church report found that the CIA was careful about keeping the United States Postal Service from learning that government agents were opening mail. CIA agents moved mail to a private room to open the mail or in some cases opened envelopes at night after stuffing them in briefcases or in coat pockets to deceive postal officials.
On May 9, 1975, the Church Committee decided to call acting CIA director William Colby. That same day Ford's top advisers (Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Philip W. Buchen, and John Marsh) drafted a recommendation that Colby be authorized to brief only rather than testify, and that he would be told to discuss only the general subject, with details of specific covert actions to be avoided except for realistic hypotheticals. But the Church Committee had full authority to call a hearing and require Colby's testimony. Ford and his top advisers met with Colby to prepare him for the hearing. Colby testified, "These last two months have placed American intelligence in danger. The almost hysterical excitement surrounding any news story mentioning CIA or referring even to a perfectly legitimate activity of CIA has raised a question whether secret intelligence operations can be conducted by the United States."
On August 17, 1975 Senator Frank Church appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, and discussed the NSA, without mentioning it by name:
In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. (...) Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left: such is the capability to monitor everything--telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide.
If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology. (...)
I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., editor of the conservative magazine The American Spectator, wrote that the committee "betrayed CIA agents and operations." The committee had not received names, so had none to release, as confirmed by later CIA director George H. W. Bush. However, Senator Jim McClure used the allegation in the 1980 election, when Church was defeated.
The Committee's work has more recently been criticized after the September 11 attacks, for leading to legislation reducing the ability of the CIA to gather human intelligence. In response to such criticism, the chief counsel of the committee, Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., retorted with a book co-authored by Aziz Z. Huq, denouncing the Bush administration's use of 9/11 to make "monarchist claims" that are "unprecedented on this side of the North Atlantic".
In September 2006, the University of Kentucky hosted a forum called "Who's Watching the Spies? Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans," bringing together two Democratic committee members, former Vice President of the United States Walter Mondale and former U.S. Senator Walter "Dee" Huddleston of Kentucky, and Schwarz to discuss the committee's work, its historical impact, and how it pertains to today's society.