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Flashback: A Look Back at the Church Committee’s Investigation into CIA, FBI Misuse of Power

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We take a look at one of the most famous special Senate investigations of government misconduct. In the mid-1970s, a US Senate committee chaired by Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho conducted a massive investigation of the CIA and FBI’s misuse of power at home and abroad. The multi-year investigation examined domestic spying, the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, the FBI and CIA’s efforts to infiltrate and disrupt leftist organizations, and more. We speak with Sen. Frank Church’s widow, Bethine Church, and Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., who served as chief counsel to the Church Committee. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Democratic congressional leadership is divided over how the Obama administration should address the Bush administration’s use of torture.

Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for the formation of an independent truth commission. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has backed Leahy’s proposal.

But on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed such an idea. Reid said, quote, “I think it would be very unwise, from my perspective, to start having commissions, boards, and tribunals until we find out what the facts are.”

The White House also appears opposed to an independent commission. On Thursday, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said, quote, “The President determined that the concept didn’t seem altogether that workable in this case.”

AMY GOODMAN: As we broadcast from Boise, Idaho, we turn now to look back at one of the most famous special Senate investigations of government misconduct. In the mid-1970s, a US Senate committee chaired by Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho conducted a massive investigation of the CIA and FBI’s abuse of power at home and abroad. The multi-year investigation examined domestic spying, the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, the FBI and CIA’s efforts to infiltrate and disrupt organizations here at home, and more.

Today, we’re joined by two individuals with close ties to the Church Committee. Bethine Church joins me here in Boise. She is the widow of Senator Frank Church, who died twenty-five years ago this month. Bethine Church is considered the matriarch of the Democratic Party in Idaho and was seen by many as the state’s third senator, because she was so active while her husband served on Capitol Hill.

We’re also joined by Frederick Schwarz, Jr. He served as chief counsel to the Church Committee. He now serves as senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, co-author of Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror.

Well, it is a great honor to have you here, Bethine Church, sitting here with you at TVTV, at Treasure Valley Television. What are your thoughts today as you look at the situation of torture, the memos that have just come out, abroad, looking at home at the issue of spying on the American people, and how it relates back to, well, the reasons for the Church Committee launching its investigation?

BETHINE CHURCH: Well, in 1970, we contemplated the unimaginable. And now it’s here.

AMY GOODMAN: What is that?

BETHINE CHURCH: Just this same thing happening over again, the looking at private lives, the way they have handled — the government has handled people’s lives in the United States. The FBI and the CIA have a different mandate than the one they followed. And now all of this has come back to haunt us with these awful, awful problems about terror and also the problem of torture. I think it’s almost unimaginable how bad it’s gotten. And the last interview and the last things that have been told about it are enough to just chill your blood.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d like to ask Bethine Church, the debate now going on in Washington as to whether the country should just move forward, look forward and not look back, or whether there should be new investigations of what happened under the Bush administration, your sense?

BETHINE CHURCH: Well, Juan, I think that really we have to really look forward. But I see a chance to have a — not a congressional committee, because there’s too much, you know, partisanship. There’s no way to have a balanced committee like Frank had. He had Goldwater. He had Tower. But they all managed to get along. And Gary Hart, who’s gone on and looked into so many things about our safety ever since then. But I think that if they had a committee outside of the Senate, maybe sort of a truth committee of some sort, I think Fritz Schwarz would agree with me, and a number of people do, that having it all looked at would probably help the country feel better about it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But even though your husband had a bipartisan committee that was widely respected, soon after the 9/11 attacks, many senior Republican leaders began to claim that the problems in the intelligence community had begun back then. I remember Secretary of State James Baker said the day after the attack on the World Trade Center that the Church hearings had caused us to unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities. Your response to those kinds of claims?

BETHINE CHURCH: Well, I think it’s really absurd. I think the things that happened — they tried to make the CIA and the FBI — this committee tried to make them work more within the bounds of the law. And I think the things that have happened since then are very immoral. I think the morality of this country has been badly damaged by the things that have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Fritz Schwarz into this conversation. Reading from an article just going through the period in the early 1970s, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the unfolding Watergate scandal, the “series of troubling revelations started to appear in the press concerning intelligence activities. First came the revelations of Christopher Pyle in January 1970 of the U.S. Army’s spying on the civilian population…The dam broke on 22 December 1974, when 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 against 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.”

I mean, this is — when you go through the list, “Among the matters investigated [were] attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and President John F. Kennedy’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.”

Lay out the context of exactly what you were investigating at that time, Fritz Schwarz.

FREDERICK SCHWARZ: Well, first, I’d just like to say it’s wonderful to be on a show with Bethine Church, who was a great hero back in the ’70s and still is so.

Well, what we looked at, the Church Committee looked at a period starting with Franklin Roosevelt and running through Richard Nixon, in which every single administration had abused the secret powers of the government. And in every single administration, you had failures of control by all the presidents and misconduct and misconduct by the intelligence agencies. So what we brought out was a comprehensive showing that under all the administrations, six different administrations, both Republican and Democrat, there were misuses of power. And we tried to show that those — and we did show — that those actions were inconsistent with American values and inconsistent with the law and with the Constitution.

Actually, it’s so interesting that the very same questions that the Church Committee looked at in the mid-’70s are the same basic fundamental questions about this nation that we face today. The question at both times was whether when Americans are fearful and when we face deadly enemies who are unscrupulous, as we did both in the Cold War and we certainly do today, the question is whether those threats can be confronted without succumbing to the breaking of the law and the violating of our values.

And surely, when we see the torture memos that have come out and the evidence compiled — beginning to be compiled about today, we know that America has injured itself by abandoning its values. And one, I think the — probably the single most important finding of the Church Committee was that if, during a time of crisis, we ignore the wise restraints that have been put in our Constitution and laws to keep us free and keep us strong, if we do that, we’re going to not only make ourselves less free, we’re going to make ourselves less safe.

And I think it’s quite clear that when you look at the current situation, going down the path of abandoning tactics of the enemy — after all, the torture methods that were used were ones that we learned from the Korean War when the Chinese communists and the North Koreans used them against Americans. And then we suddenly adopted those same tactics. It’s not the way America was intended to go, and it’s harmful to our country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Fritz Shwarz, I’d like to ask you, some of the most shocking revelations, as I recall, of the Church Committee’s investigations were about the CIA medical experiments conducted on American citizens. Could you talk about that?

FREDERICK SCHWARZ: Yeah, you have a very good memory. Those were experiments with drugs, with mind-altering drugs that were used by the CIA. They had a reasonable interest in the first instance, which was, you know, these new drugs, like LSD, might be used against Americans when they’re captured or might be interesting for us to consider using ourselves. And that was not a crazy thing for them to do. I mean, a place like the CIA ought to understand new science and new technology. But where they went in an unacceptable direction was they used these drugs, LSD specifically, on people who didn’t know the drugs were being administering to them.

So, for example, they at some conference, ironically involving the branch of the military that was meant to look out for biological weapons, they slipped into an alcoholic drink that was given to an Army — I think he was a colonel — a big dose of LSD. And the consequence, ultimately, was that the guy jumped out the window — I think it was in a hotel in New York — and committed suicide.

So, what was wrong about that was doing something secretly, and certainly doing something that a victim, this Army, I think he was, colonel didn’t know, and I think that raises, Juan, a — and by the way, if you’re the same Juan Gonzalez I think you are, you write great columns.


FREDERICK SCHWARZ: That was something that is part of what I believe is the greatest underlying cause for the problems both back in the period the Church Committee covered and today, which is excessive secrecy. We’ve slipped as a country into not being as open as we historically should be, and instead, more and more secrecy. And I think that’s one of the underlying root causes that needs to be examined and dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Fritz Schwarz, who headed up Frank Church’s committee that investigated assassination abroad, spying on American citizens here at home. And here in Boise, Idaho, we’re talking with Bethine Church, was known as the third senator from Idaho, the widow of the former Idaho senator Frank Church.

I’m Amy Goodman. And yes, he is the Juan Gonzalez who writes those great articles in the New York Daily News. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: In 2006, I interviewed former senator Gary Hart on Democracy Now! He was the youngest serving member of the Church Committee. I asked him about what came of the investigation.

    GARY HART: We created special courts with judges that were — who were cleared for top secret information to issue Fourth Amendment warrants, authorizing surveillance when it was appropriate to do so. And it was obviously that law that the President’s been violating for the past — we don’t know how long, at least two or three years. We also passed a law protecting the identity of intelligence officers undercover. That law was violated by the White House, somebody in the White House, in the Valerie Plame instance. Other resolutions were adopted by presidents, having to do with restriction of intelligence activities of one kind or another. And virtually all of those laws and presidential resolutions have been disobeyed or violated by this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: This is another excerpt of the former senator, Gary Hart, the youngest member of the Church Committee, talking about the committee’s investigation.

    AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of the Church Committee, they also — I should say, you also — looked into journalists and the relationship with the CIA. The investigation was far-reaching, but a lot was omitted in the final report. It seemed to be one of the most important issues that the CIA wanted to cover up, a sign of how closely they considered this prize program. The CIA was willing to divulge, as you were talking about, assassination plots, but it wouldn’t give up one of its most productive valued secret operations: their use of journalists.

    Now, you were quoted years ago by Carl Bernstein in the Rolling Stone Magazine saying that “the Church Committee report on the media hardly reflects what we found. There was a prolonged and elaborate negotiation with the CIA over what would be said.” What did you learn about journalists, about their news organizations and the CIA?

    GARY HART: Well, I think it would be wrong to generalize too far. There were certain journalists and certain publications that were used as conduits for information that not just the CIA, but the administration wanted to come out. I think it would be a mistake to focus all attention on the CIA as the villain, because what we found and what I found over the years is an awful lot of what the CIA does is ordered by the White House, in terms of covert operations and the rest.

    One of the key recommendations of our commission — our committee was that there had to be presidential findings to authorize major covert operations, that is to say, to make politicians accountable for these activities, because up until then the CIA had gotten all the blame for conducting operations that various presidents and White Houses had ordered them to do, and the politicians were getting off the hook by plausible deniability, just saying, “We didn’t know this was going on.” So I’m not a defender of the CIA, but I think it’s only fair to say an awful lot of the stuff the CIA was doing, they were ordered to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Gary Hart, the youngest member of the Church Committee. Fritz Schwarz, I wanted to ask you both about the spying on, investigation of journalists and also the role of Donald Rumsfeld, trying to keep the information from getting out from the Church Committee — when the acting CIA director, William Colby, was called on, they didn’t want him to have to testify, but simply to brief the committee — and Rumsfeld’s concerns about efforts by the Church Committee to curtail the power of US intelligence agencies.

FREDERICK SCHWARZ: Well, both Rumsfeld and Cheney were involved in the Ford White House. And then Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense at the same time as there was a big shake-up, including the firing of Bill Colby, who had been cooperating with us as director of the CIA. And I know more about their role now than I knew at the time. They weren’t people who we saw a lot. We dealt with other people in the White House, but I now know, and America knows generally, that Rumsfeld and then Cheney were people who felt that the — nothing should be known about these secret operations, and there should be as much disruption as possible.

That, I’d like — I’d like to, for a moment, because it’s the same kind of accusation that former Secretary of State James Baker made on the night of 9/11 on ABC-TV, and where he said, in sort of a hush-hush way, to Jennings, Peter Jennings, he said, “Well, the Church Committee caused 9/11.” Now, first place, he had his facts utterly wrong. And second place, it was completely illogical.

On the facts side, no information that we brought out was information that the American public didn’t deserve to know and need to know. Secondly, he left out that the Church Committee in 1976, way ahead of the rest of the country, said the intelligence agencies should start paying more attention to terrorism. We said that in two different reports. And then, Senator Church, himself, in a speech, called for the intelligence community, particularly those working overseas, to have more and better use of human intelligence and not rely overly on the wonderful machines that go in the sky and can see things the size of a tennis ball down on the ground from hundreds of miles up in the sky. And Senator Church made a great speech, in which he said, “Pay attention, use human intelligence, because if we don’t do that, you don’t understand the motives of whoever may be your adversaries.”

But on the logic of what Baker said, it’s really a stunning piece of illogic. He said the Church Committee, which finished its work in 1976, somehow caused the CIA and other intelligence agency to be hobbled in 2001. Now, how could that be? Think about it. When between 1976 and 2001, there were not only twenty-five years, but there were administrations, which Mr. Baker, himself, was part of — the Reagan administration, the Bush administration, not to speak of all the other ones. So, how was it that a Senate committee in 1976 was hobbling the CIA in 2001, when Mr. Baker, himself, and other people who were — served our country had been in power for years and years in between?

AMY GOODMAN: Bethine Church, final question, and that is, President Obama says we have to move forward, we should not go back. Your final thoughts on this?

BETHINE CHURCH: Well, I think we have to go forward, and I think we should not get in the way of the terrific problems we have and getting a solution to them. But I think if we don’t look at what happened, we might do it again.

When you think of all the things that the Church Committee tried to straighten out and when you think of the terrific secrecy that Cheney and all of these people dealt with — they were always secretive about everything, and they didn’t want anything known — I think people have to know what went on. And that’s why I think an independent committee outside of the Congress that just looked at the whole problem and everything that happened.

I remember Colby was very, very good. He cooperated with the committee. And the administration and the CIA and everybody was just furious with him, just furious, because he was so cooperative. But I think that’s the kind of thing that the people in government need to be, is very upfront about what’s happening.

And I think we’ve made the world a lot more dangerous and our country a lot more dangerous by the kind of things we’ve done, in terms of spying on people, in terms of torture. Everything that’s happened, I think has made us much less secure.

AMY GOODMAN: Bethine Church, I want to thank you for being with us, was often called the third senator from Idaho. Her husband, Frank Church, who led the Church Committee, died twenty-five years ago this month. Her son, Forrest Church, is a leading minister in New York at the All Souls Church. And Fritz Schwarz, Frederick A.O. Schwarz, thanks so much for being with us, legal counsel to the Church Committee, who now heads up, is a legal counsel to the Brennan organization in New York.

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