It’s surprising, and perhaps disappointing, that the Church Committee isn’t better-known. In 1975, Senator Frank Church (D-ID) commanded headlines with his investigation of abuses by the American intelligence community, from domestic surveillance of dissidents to foreign assassinations. Two full-length books have been published about the commission’s work – A Season of Inquiry, a memoir by Senate investigator Loch K. Johnson reissued in 2015, and Kathryn Olmstead’s Challenging the Secret Government (1996), which devotes equal time to the House’s Pike Committee and investigative journalism of the period. A few memoirs and a single biography of Church himself have been published, if not widely read; certainly, the Committee’s revelations about intelligence crimes have been covered in a ream of books, articles, documentaries and fictional treatments. But strangely, the man and committee who played such a vital role bringing these abuses to light remain an historical footnote
James Risen’s new biography, The Last Honest Man, thus feels long-overdue. Risen (along with his son Thomas Risen), who has written extensively about America’s intelligence community, places Church and his colleagues squarely in the middle of the United States’ reckoning with the seamier side of its history.
Frank Church was always something of an iconoclast. He grew up an admirer of the isolationist Senator William Borah, who clashed with Woodrow Wilson over the League of Nations and Franklin Roosevelt over the New Deal, yet found his own politics moving further left as he grew older. After military service in World War II, marriage to Bethine Clark, daughter of Idaho’s Governor Chase Clark (a politically shrewd woman dubbed “Idaho’s Third Senator”) and a stint practicing law, he endured an onerous bout with testicular cancer which nearly ended his life. After a slow, painful recovery, Church felt his way towards politics, winning a Senate seat in 1956 against the Red-baiting incumbent.
Church struggled to adapt to the clubby atmosphere of the Senate. He butted heads with Lyndon Johnson, the powerful Majority Leader who later became President, and struggled to gain committee seats or influence. His colleagues often viewed him as a pompous gadfly, with an orotund speaking style that earned him the nickname “Senator Cathedral.” Church’s stature was elevated when one of his few close friends in the Senate, John F. Kennedy, was elevated to the White House. Even so, Church’s opinions rarely deviated from the American mainstream at the time; he was a hawkish Cold War, supported modest government reforms and held conservative economic views.
Vietnam proved the catalyst for Church’s transformation. Like many Democrats, he was initially reluctant to criticize a war whose escalation began under Kennedy: “I like to believe that he would not have made the fatal error of committing American troops…in pursuit of a policy that made no sense,” Church commented. Nor, despite his cool personal relations with Johnson, did Church’s views change after Kennedy’s death; he supported the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. But serving on William Fulbright’s committee investigating the war convinced him that Vietnam was at best a mistake, at worst a crime, and he became increasingly forthright in criticizing the war – sometimes to President Johnson’s face.
If Church had merely grown disillusioned with Vietnam, he would have been in good company. But Church insisted on diving further, voicing criticisms that struck supporters as brave and opponents as treasonous. “If we could only overcome our obsessive preoccupation with other people’s ideologies,” he scolded in 1967, “we could start asking some practical questions.” The quagmire in Southeast Asia pushed Church to criticize the entire bulwark of America’s Cold War foreign policy. “Fear blinds us, fear of communism which transcends faith in freedom; fear of a future that we cannot shape with our own hands,” Church said. He attacked Presidents Johnson and Nixon for making America “much more a warfare than a welfare state” while domestic concerns of poverty, racism and environmental pollution remained unsolved.
Church’s stridency on the issue wasn’t universally popular in Idaho, where conservatives launched a recall campaign in 1967; Church easily swatted down this attempt, but relied on Bethine to tamp down political fires at home for his 1968 campaign, especially with establishment Democrats leery about his radicalism. When Republican Richard Nixon took office in 1969 and expanded the war, Church “became angrier and angrier at the establishment,” an aide recalled. (Risen notes that his son Forrest’s flirtation with counterculture may have further encouraged Church’s leftward drift.) He co-sponsored the Cooper-Church Amendment to end funding of the war, spoke at antiwar rallies and even wrote essays for Ramparts magazine.
Nor did Vietnam occupy the Senator’s whole attention. Church held hearings on the misdeeds of multinational ITT, briefly in the spotlight for illegally contributing to Nixon’s campaign, and grilling CIA Director Richard Helms about the company’s ties to the Agency and role in destabilizing Salvador Allende’s Chile. Further hearings explored crooked contracts abetted by the United States government; an investigation of the aviation giant Lockheed Martin exposed a massive, multinational bribery scheme involving officials in Holland, Italy, West Germany and particularly Japan, where revelations about the Liberal Democratic Party’s dealings with Lockheed caused that country’s largest postwar scandal.
Thus Church was well-placed to head an investigation of the country’s intelligence apparatus. The groundwork, it should be noted, had been well-laid in advance. Seymour Hersh published an explosive New York Times article in December 1974 detailing the CIA’s history of domestic surveillance, citing none other than director William Colby as a principal source. Soon rumors spread about the “Family Jewels,” a document which compiled a list of the Agency’s violations of its own charter, which combined with the “common knowledge” that the Agency played a hand in Augusto Pinochet’s recent coup in Chile. COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, had already been partially exposed through a left wing activist’s burglary in 1971; J. Edgar Hoover’s death and the Bureau’s inglorious role in Watergate further eroded its standing.
Still, Church and his fifteen man committee (including Republicans John Tower, Howard Baker, Barry Goldwater and Richard Schweiker; Democrats included Gary Hart, Philip Hart and Walter Mondale) found themselves navigating a minefield. At first, intelligence agencies were cooperative; William Colby, who’d replaced Richard Helms as CIA Director, offered information both to the Department of Justice and Church’s investigators. Colby’s motivations were unclear; an amiable, media-friendly company man, he had been involved with the CIA since its founding and had oversaw the brutal Phoenix Program in South Vietnam, organizing death squads that helped break the power of the Vietcong at the cost of 80,000 lives. Still, when questioned why he was cooperating with Congress, Colby replied “so they’ll learn about these secrets. Place needs a housecleaning.”
This didn’t endear Colby to President Gerald Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (who called Colby a “psychopath”) or Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom Ford appointed to head a presidential commission designed to head off Church. “Bill, do you really have to present all this material to us?” an exasperated Rockefeller asked the Director, who frustrated his hopes to present a sanitized depiction of the CIA. But then, Ford himself struggled to remain discreet. During an informal press conference, the President admitted that he feared Church would uncover secrets that would shock and enrage the American people. “Like what?” a reporter asked. “Like assassinations!” Ford said, before sputtering that his comments were “off the record.”
Despite such infelicitous comments, Ford did his best to derail Church’s investigation. Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney, blocked the Committee from receiving national security documents while Kissinger refused to testify. Church, along with Republican co-chair John Tower (R-TX) – who, despite his conservatism and boorish personality, formed an unlikely partnership with Church – managed to persuade Ford and Cheney to fork over enough documentary evidence to launch hearings. This put them ahead of the House Committee, headed by grouchy New Yorker Otis Pike, whose refusal to cooperate with the White House delayed his committee’s hearings and undercut their effectiveness.
As Church and his researchers (headed by chief counsel F.A.O. “Fritz” Schwarz, heir to the toy company, and Loch K. Johnson) poured through the documents and investigated witnesses behind closed doors, they found a mindboggling set of abuses. Documents and witnesses confirmed that the CIA misused its power both to spy on citizens, as Hersh had disclosed, and to subvert foreign governments. Mindblowing stories revealed the CIA’s cooperation with organized crime to assassinate Fidel Castro in the early ’60s, with gangster Johnny Rosselli offering closed door testimony about his Agency contacts. Rumors about American involvement in the deaths of Patrice Lumumba, Ngo Dinh Diem, Rafael Trujillo and Chilean General Rene Schneider were confirmed beyond reasonable doubt.
Church began the investigation assuming that the CIA, FBI and NSA could be characterized as a “rogue elephant” that acted without authorization. This position soon became untenable, as the role of John and Bobby Kennedy in the Castro plots (dubbed Operation MONGOOSE) came to light, while Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon’s complicity in other conspiracies trickled out in further testimony. “I don’t think we understood at first that it would not just be Nixon,” Walter Mondale admitted. But any Democrats hoping that the Church Committee would simply rehash the Ervin Committee’s Watergate hearings were disillusioned; the problem ran much deeper than Richard Nixon.
While Church was reluctant to believe that his friend Kennedy had authorized assassinations, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that he had encouraged, if not explicitly ordered MONGOOSE and later the overthrow of Diem in South Vietnam. Nor could Church keep quiet the story of Judith Campbell Exner, who had an affair with Kennedy while dating Chicago mobster Sam Giancana, whom Rosselli contacted to take part in MONGOOSE. Richard Helms invoked the famous case of Henry II and Thomas a Becket in explaining how presidential involvement worked. While “any of us would have found it very difficult to discuss assassinations with the President,” Helms added that Kennedy made clear that “if [Castro] had disappeared from the scene, they would not have been unhappy.”
Then again, even that level of deniability wasn’t universal. Several witnesses testified that Dwight Eisenhower explicitly ordered the “elimination” of Patrice Lumumba, the left-wing President of the Congo, who led his country to independence only to face subversion by Katanga separatists bankrolled by Belgium. The CIA authorized its “poisoner-in-chief” Sidney Gottlieb to create a biotoxin , which was smuggled into the Congo with plans of murdering Lumumba while in UN custody. Lumumba did not cooperate; he escaped from his UN minders, but was ultimately murdered by Katanga separatists under Belgian command, without direct CIA involvement. Gottlieb’s agent dumped the toxins into a river, grateful that he wouldn’t have Lumumba’s death on his conscience.
The information continued to flow, all of it damning. Sidney Gottlieb was summoned to explain MKULTRA, the CIA “mind control” program which conducted unauthorized medical experiments on victims from patients at a Canadian sanitarium to clients of a San Francisco brothel. James Jesus Angleton, the Agency’s vaunted counterintelligence chief, was summoned to testify about Operation CHAOS, the subversion of antiwar groups instituted by President Johnson and escalated under Nixon. Tom Charles Huston was called to outline the Huston Plan to consolidate intelligence agencies under direct White House control, engaging in activities Huston noted were “completely illegal.” The cumulative picture was an intelligence community completely unhemmed by law or morality.
The CIA weren’t the only targets of Church’s investigation, of course. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was exposed in damning detail their COINTELPRO against Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders were probed in painstaking detail, from informants to poison pen letters and roles in the murder of Fred Hampton. Gary Thomas Rowe, an informant paid to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, offered testimony in a Klan-like hood about his role in several beatings and murders of Civil Rights workers while on the Bureau’s payroll. Such revelations led Church to brand Hoover “the man who made a police state out of America”; Philip Hart was forced to admit to his wife Janey, a constant critic of the FBI, that “your wildest ravings were the truth.”
More surprising was the Committee’s investigation of the National Security Agency, whose role in surveillance and signals intelligence was virtually unknown outside of Washington (officials jokingly said its initials stood for “No Such Agency”). NSA officials testified about extensive programs, SHAMROCK and MINIARET, to monitor the communications of millions of Americans which had been operating without supervision or even knowledge of many officials. In the NSA’s hands, Church opined, “the capacity…is there to make tyranny total in America.”
Whereas the Watergate hearings provided months of compelling soap opera, the Church Committee’s public hearings (beginning in September 1975) struggled to hold the public interest. There were Sam Ervin esque touches of drama: Church opened the hearings by flourishing a CIA dart gun before the cameras, providing the Committee’s defining image; repeated presentation of misdeeds, and emotional appeals by Philip Hart, in between cancer treatments, about the “illegal actions intended to deny certain citizens of their First Amendment rights.” But for all their careful presentation the hearings were murky, dense and ultimately dispiriting. While Watergate occasionally sagged in tedious detail, its combination of detective story and civics lesson proved assessible to most viewers. All Church could offer, in comparison, was revelation after revelation of wrongdoing, with no edifying deliverance.
The Committee endured predictable opprobrium. Church’s “rogue elephant” comment was seized upon by conservatives who accused Church of conducting a partisan witch hunt. William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter-turned-columnist, attacked the “Church Cover-Up Committee” for supposedly shielding the Kennedys from criticism. Safire boldly ran a column entitled “Nixon Never Did,” claiming that unlike Kennedy or Johnson, Nixon never used the IRS to harass political opponents (false) and couldn’t be implicated in assassinations of foreign leaders (apparently ignoring testimony about General Schneider’s death). Henry Kissinger accused the Committee of “McCarthyism” while Dick Cheney continued to obstruct their efforts to obtain key documents; Vice President Rockefeller dragged his feet in sharing his commission’s own files with Church or Otis Pike, before issuing a report that minimized intelligence abuses.
Republican committee members generally muted their criticism of Church, at least in public. John Tower wondered, in a rhetorical question debated forever after by policymakers, “at what point must the people’s right to know be subordinated to the people’s right to be secure?” Barry Goldwater, on the other hand, became a vocal thorn in Church’s side, complaining that the Democrats “want to make sure nobody blames President Kennedy” and that the Committee’s investigation would be “an action which the Senate would come to regret.” At times Goldwater was almost fatuous, once sighting down the gun barrel of Colby’s poison dart gun like an amused child. Yet Republicans also delivered one of the Committee’s most effective moments, when Black Minority Counsel Curtis Smothers emotionally reviewed the FBI’s abuse of African-Americans.
But the Committee suffered its worst blow with the murder of Richard Welch, a CIA employee gunned down in Athens by left wing terrorists in December 1975. Welch’s identity had been blown years earlier by the left wing magazine CounterSpy; nonetheless, the Ford Administration, the Agency and conservatives blamed Church, due to his “ridicule and personal abuse” of the Agency. Richard Helms denounced both Church and the press, publicly assailing Daniel Schorr (who had leaked Pike Committee documents to the Village Voice) as a “cocksucker” and “Killer Schorr” for Welch’s death. James Jesus Angleton, humiliated by his testimony, spread stories that Church’s committee was run by the KGB. Bill Colby, who had infuriated colleagues by cooperating with Church, was fired by Ford in October 1975 and replaced by George H.W. Bush.
The CIA scored propaganda from Richard Welch’s death, but no one seemed perturbed about the Committee witnesses who experienced violent deaths. Sam Giancana, the Chicago mob boss connected with Operation MONGOOSE, was shot in his home in July 1975, just before he could testify. No doubt many people wanted Giancana dead, for many reasons (his mob associates blamed Tony Spilotro, later a Las Vegas kingpin); the same for Johnny Rosselli, who after providing the Committee some of its biggest bombshells was found garroted in a barrel off the shore of Miami. The Mob couldn’t be blamed for the car bombing that killed Orlando Letelier, Salvador Allende’s exiled foreign minister, in Washington; that honor went to Pinochet’s intelligence service. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Letelier, too, died just after giving testimony to Committee investigators.
For all the imprecations and seeming public indifference, despite the grim fates of three witnesses, Church saw the hearings as a success for democracy. “We doubt that any country would have the courage to make such a disclosure,” he said, adding that he hoped to end the “corrosive cynicism about government” prevailing in 1970s America. Laws and reforms were passed to restrain the CIA and FBI; President Ford, followed by Jimmy Carter, issued executive orders outlawing the assassination of foreign leaders. Further hearings probed assassination plots more thoroughly, even examining rumors of government involvement in the Kennedy and King Assassinations. And Congress, having reasserted its authority over intelligence agencies, now demanded strict oversight over their activities.
The hearings only briefly benefited Frank Church’s career. In 1976 he attempted to parlay the hearings into a presidential campaign, which fizzled out due to his late entry; despite winning several late primaries, Church was unable to overcome Carter’s primary lead. Passed over as Carter’s Vice President, Church continued fighting for government reforms, environmental improvements and engagement with the communist world. This caused Idaho’s increasingly conservative electorate to turn against him (“I’m tired of hearing about your conscience,” one voter complained), and he lost reelection in 1980, one several high profile Democrats swept from office in the “Tuesday Night Massacre.” Church died in 1984, already fading from public consciousness.
“By bringing the intelligence committee under the rule of law and imposing congressional oversight for the first time,” Risen writes, “Frank Church made sure there was no permanent Deep State.” Perhaps this a generous interpretation of the Committee’s legacy. The CIA regained much of its stature under Reagan, who utilized it for covert operations in Latin America and the Middle East. While the FBI never resumed the worst of its Hoover-era abuses, it continued to serve as a political football through successive administrations. And the NSA, after a brief burst of notoriety, happily faded back to obscurity until Bush and Obama-era revelations about its widespread surveillance programs. Certainly after the War on Terror, among whose architects was Dick Cheney, Americans can question how much restraint remains.
Politicians and general readers would nonetheless do well to heed the lessons of Risen’s book. Otis Pike, Church’s House counterpart, divined a hard truth about their investigations. “This country went through an awful trauma with Watergate,” Pike told a reporter in 1976, soon after his committee’s hearings concluded. But…all they were asked to believe was that their president had been a bad person. In this new situation they are asked much more; they are asked to believe that their country has been evil. And nobody wants to believe that.” Such recognition would, at the very least, go a long way towards more sensible administration of the United States.