After fielding yet another media call about the supposed “dismantling” of the CIA by the Church Committee, I feel moved to systematically address the neoconservative assumptions that dominate the current debate. In 1975, staffers in the Gerald Ford White House, most notably chief of staff Dick Cheney, started an organized effort to spin the press coverage of Senator Frank Church’s investigation of the CIA.
The talking points of the Ford administration are now taken as gospel truth. This is not just a matter of historical accuracy; it’s directly relevant to the current discussion. Because if the Church Committee did destroy the CIA, then we can say that “history tells us” that all CIA investigations are inherently destructive and will endanger our safety.
So, let’s look at the record. Right after Watergate, Senator Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities launched a massive inquiry into past crimes of the CIA and FBI. Despite the heated rhetoric you hear these days, it did not do certain things.
1. The Church Committee did not dismantle the CIA.
The committee revealed that the CIA had committed crimes and abuses of power, including mail opening, wiretapping, illegal spying on American citizens in the United States, and assassination plots against foreign leaders. Thanks to the Church Committee, we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot, and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste; and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a US-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a result of the committee’s investigation, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires warrants for wiretapping, and created the Senate Intelligence Committee. FISA did not destroy the CIA; it merely required intelligence agencies to explain to a top-secret panel why they wanted to wiretap people in the United States, thus avoiding the bad old days when J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon listened to the phone conversations of anyone who had the nerve to criticize them. The creation of the Senate Intelligence Committee actually laid the foundation for reducing the number of oversight committees; there were eight congressional committees with jurisdiction over the CIA in 1976, but only two – one intelligence committee in each house – after 1980. So, it’s hard to see how this legacy amounts to “dismantling” the CIA.
2. The Church Committee did not prompt the firing of hundreds of CIA agents.
It was Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner, not the committee, who cut 800 positions from the covert operations side of the agency. The positions were eliminated mostly through attrition. Though he only fired 17 people, this episode is often exaggerated by agency supporters and falsely attributed to the influence of the Church Committee.
3. The Church Committee did not name or cause the deaths of CIA agents.
The committee named only the highest-level officials, whose names were known to everyone. Some extreme anti-CIA activists did publish lists of the names of agents in the field, and as a result, terrorists killed the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch. The Ford administration, led by Cheney, waved the bloody shirt and implied that the committee had been responsible for Welch’s death, but even CIA officials themselves later admitted that this was just spin.
4. The Church Committee was not an unambiguous victory for liberals.
As I argue in Real Enemies, after forcing the nation to confront its past, Church found that he had strengthened a trend he abhorred: the ultra-right, libertarian rejection of all governmental authority. The percentage of Americans who said they distrusted the government actually increased during and after Church’s investigation. Still, the senator was certain he had done the right thing. “We must never become weary of being vigilant,” he said. “We dare not shrink from another redemptive investigation.”
If Frank Church and his colleagues did not destroy the CIA, then what did they do? They revealed that our nation had made mistakes, in hopes that we would not repeat them. They proved that we do indeed live in a constitutional democracy, where the rule of law is (eventually) respected. And they pushed Dick Cheney over the edge, convincing him that Democrats are America-hating traitors who will stop at nothing to undermine our nation’s defenses.