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“The Last Honest Man”: James Risen on How Frank Church Exposed CIA, FBI & NSA Assassinations, Abuse

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Veteran national security reporter James Risen joins us for an in-depth look at his new book, The Last Honest Man, about the work of Senator Frank Church to rein in the FBI, CIA and other agencies after the Vietnam War, Watergate and other fiascos had shaken the public’s trust in the U.S. government. Church, a Democrat, chaired a Senate committee that in 1975 began investigating the intelligence community and uncovered numerous abuses, including assassination plots and widespread domestic surveillance. Risen’s book also includes new details about Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s previously unknown role in the work of the committee. “The Church Committee, I think, is probably the most important congressional investigation in modern American history,” says Risen, who says it marked a “before and after” in U.S. national security policy and helped to limit abuses by the government in the decades that followed.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We spend the rest of the hour with James Risen, the twice Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, formerly with The New York Times, now with The Intercept. He has just published a major new book that looks at a watershed moment in American intelligence history, when Idaho Senator Frank Church led the Church Committee, investigating for the first time the CIA, the FBI and the NSA during hearings from 1975 to ’76. It was officially called the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. This is Senator Frank Church speaking during one of the committee hearings.

SEN. FRANK CHURCH: We have seen today the dark side of those activities, where many Americans who were not even suspected of crime were not only spied upon, but they were harassed, they were discredited, and at times endangered.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is another clip from the Church Committee Senate hearings, CIA Director William Colby testifying. He was asked if he found the work of the committee unwelcome.

WILLIAM COLBY: No, I do not. As I’ve said to the chairman, I welcome the chance to try to describe to the American people what intelligence is really about today. It is an opportunity to show how we Americans have modernized the whole concept of intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s CIA Director William Colby testifying by the Church Committee, which investigated U.S. assassination targets, from Castro in Cuba to Lumumba in Congo to Diem in Vietnam. This is the focus of the new book by James Risen titled The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys—and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy.

Jim, this is a fascinating read. It is so important, even, what, some 50 years later. If you can talk about why you focused on Senator Church, who at one time hoped to be president of the United States, but the significance of these hearings, and what you were most shocked by in the revelations that he discovered around U.S. government activity around the world?

JAMES RISEN: Sure, yeah. The reason I wanted to write this book was, you know, I was covering the CIA for The New York Times at the time of 9/11, and I was — if you remember, Dick Cheney started — after 9/11, started complaining constantly that the reason the CIA and the FBI had failed to uncover the terrorist plots was because of the Church Committee, which was a very odd thing to say, because the Church Committee had taken place 25 years earlier. And Frank Church was long dead by that time. But it became the mantra of the Bush administration that it was the Church Committee’s tighter rules on U.S. intelligence operations that had led to the weakness of intelligence — which was a lie, but it was a very powerful lie that continued for years. And so, after — I started reading about the Church Committee because of Dick Cheney’s constant carping about it, and I decided, eventually, that it was something that I really wanted to write a book about.

The Church Committee, I think, is probably the most important congressional investigation in modern American history. It was a watershed moment in the history of the CIA and the FBI and the NSA. Anybody who worked at those — the intelligence community knows that there is a before and after. There’s a before the Church Committee and what we could get away with, and there’s an after the Church Committee and what we were — what rules were now imposed on them to limit their power and their flexibility. And I think that’s — you’ve got to get back into the mindset of the time and remember there was no congressional oversight whatsoever of the CIA, the FBI or the NSA for three decades. And Frank Church was brought in. This committee was created in 1975 to conduct the very first oversight and very first investigation ever conducted of the CIA. And at the time, you’ve got to remember, the FBI was just as much of a rogue organization. J. Edgar Hoover had just died, and he had run the organization since its founding. And no one had ever questioned his authority or his power. And the NSA at the time, very few Americans even knew it existed. It was even more secretive, far more secretive even than it is today. And so, the hearings were explosive, and they led to changes in the laws, changes in executive orders, led to the creation of permanent congressional intelligence oversight. And it was — it had a dramatic impact on American national security policy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jim, you mentioned J. Edgar Hoover. He had died in 1972, a few years before the committee.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Would this committee have even been possible, had J. Edgar Hoover not died? Because you point out how critical he was to the incipient development of a police state right here in the United States. I’m wondering if you could talk about that, as well, his role in —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — developing this early move toward a police state.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, when the Church Committee was created, it was originally just going to be what they called the CIA Committee, and they were just going to investigate the CIA. But Frank Church and others on the committee very quickly realized they had to investigate the FBI. And Church and others later admitted they never would have been able to investigate the FBI at the time if J. Edgar Hoover was still alive. He was so powerful. He had been able to pressure and blackmail and intimidate everyone both in Congress and in the White House ever since, you know, before World War II. He was probably the most powerful secret figure in modern American history, and he was able to turn the FBI into like a Gestapo organization, especially in the post-World War II era, when he began the whole communist redbaiting witch hunts, and then moved on from that in the 1960s to harass the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. And so he had this long history of constant harassment of anyone who opposed him or opposed the status quo in the United States. And he did it in a way that he had intimidated everyone in Congress, who believed that he had blackmail material on them — whether he did or not, they all believed it — and so no one was willing to take him on, until — or even investigate the FBI in any meaningful way, until he was dead.

One of the really interesting things that I learned was the famous burglary of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, I think in 1971, where the burglars, who were basically antiwar dissidents, took a bunch of documents and then began to understand what they were looking at only after they had taken the documents. And they started parceling them out to members of Congress and journalists, who they thought would be helpful in disclosing and airing the information that they were providing to them. And they were sending it to them anonymously. And they were sending to very liberal members of Congress. And one of the things that I learned that was shocking was that those members of Congress immediately turned them back to the FBI without doing anything with them. And some of the journalists they sent them to did the same thing. And it just showed how powerful the hold J. Edgar Hoover had on people, because he was still alive at that time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your review and reporting on several of the major assassination attempts that government agencies, especially the CIA, were involved in, you spent a lot of time talking back about the key Mafia figures. Johnny Roselli, a mobster from California, and Sam Giancana, another mobster, a key mobster from Chicago, they were both assassinated, one after testifying before the Church Commission and the other one just before he was about to testify —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — before the Church Committee. Could you —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Especially for younger listeners and viewers who are not aware of this whole issue of what happened with attempts to kill Castro and the Kennedy assassination, could you go through some of that?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, yeah. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, the CIA decided — you know, Dwight Eisenhower was very interested — it was pushing the CIA to try to kill Castro. And the CIA decided that one way they could do it is to form a secret alliance with the Mafia. And so, they had a — they arranged for a former FBI agent named Bob Mayhew, who had been — who was also on contract with the CIA, to contact mobsters around the country to see if they would form an alliance to work with the CIA to get into Cuba and kill Castro. And so, he first contacted Johnny Roselli, who was a flamboyant mobster both — operating both in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. And Roselli then contacted Sam Giancana, who was the boss of the Chicago mob. And the two of them then contacted Santo Trafficante, who was the mob boss of Florida and who had longtime casino operations in Cuba before Castro took over. And so, they went with Mayhew to Miami Beach and set up shop in the Fontainebleau Hotel to try to figure out how to get poisons to somebody close to Castro who could kill him.

But the plot kind of unraveled very quickly, because Giancana had a girlfriend in Las Vegas, Phyllis McGuire, one of the famous McGuire Sisters, a singing act, and he was convinced that she was sleeping with a standup comedian named Dan Rowan, who later became famous in the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show in the late '60s. And so, he wanted to leave and go back to Las Vegas and maybe kill Dan Rowan. But Bob Mayhew convinced him to stay and keep working on Castro, while he got a private investigator to go wiretap Phyllis McGuire to see if it was true. And the private investigator he hired to wiretap Phyllis McGuire did a shoddy job, and the local police found the wiretap and called the FBI. And suddenly, J. Edgar Hoover was pulling a thread and finding out all about — through the arrest in Las Vegas and the investigation of the wiretap of Phyllis McGuire, they found out about the CIA's Mafia alliance. And then that led them to find that Sam Giancana had another mistress, named Judith Campbell, who at the same time was also sleeping with President Kennedy.

And so, very quickly, J. Edgar Hoover had blackmail material on President Kennedy. And he confronted Robert Kennedy, his brother, who was the attorney general at the time, and then he also confronted President Kennedy. And it’s very clear, if you look at the timing and the — is that what he wanted was greater freedom to act to spy on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. And it wasn’t long after he confronted the Kennedys with this blackmail material about the fact that Kennedy was sharing the same mistress as Sam Giancana, that the Kennedys approved the wiretapping of Martin Luther King by the FBI. And so, it was a very convoluted story, but it’s probably one of the most fascinating stories in the history of the CIA and the FBI.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jim Risen, if you can continue on that, the wiretapping of Dr. King, a man who — and especially in Jonathan Eig’s new biography, King: A Life, talks about how Dr. Martin Luther King suffered from severe depression, was hospitalized a number of times, and how they tried to drive him to suicide, and what the Kennedys —


AMY GOODMAN: — knew and when they knew it, Jim?

JAMES RISEN: Right. One of the things that became clear is that Hoover had been obsessed with King beginning in the late 1950s. As soon as King began to rise to prominence after the Montgomery bus boycott, he was in the sights of Hoover. And Hoover began to be — very quickly became convinced that King and his civil rights movement were controlled by Moscow and that they were communist puppets. And there were two members of King’s organization that had some background in the American Communist Party, but there was no evidence of any real influence, communist influence in the civil rights movement. And the FBI staff, intelligence division staff, continually told Hoover that. And he kept telling them that he didn’t agree with them, and he wanted them to change their opinion and change their reports. And he put so much pressure on them that they finally just began to harass — come up with plots to harass King however they could.

Originally, the wiretapping that the Kennedys approved was supposed to be to find communist infiltration in King’s movement, but very quickly they realized there was no evidence of that, but they were finding evidence that he was having affairs, extramarital affairs. And so they began to focus on his extramarital affairs and then tried — then, ultimately, once he won, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that so enraged Hoover that he and his intelligence chief, William Sullivan, began to set up a thing where they took all the recordings, highlights of the recordings of the wiretaps of his extramarital affairs, and sent them to his house along with a note saying, “You have 34 days. You know what you should do,” meaning, essentially, that — I think he was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and they wanted him to kill himself before that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, in this book, the revelations, what you learned in talking to — it’s hard to say “the late Dan Ellsberg,” but Daniel Ellsberg, who’s just died —


AMY GOODMAN: — the information of what he gave to Frank Church, and how this relates to the assassination of the leader Diem?

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I mean, he gave — he had a lot of information about Vietnam, but he also — just to step back one step, he had provided — he told me, while I was interviewing him, the whole backstory to how he ended up leaking the Pentagon Papers and how it — and he first went to J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to try to leak the — to get the Senate to conduct hearings. And Fulbright refused to do it, and he put the Pentagon Papers — I think in 1969, he put them in a safe at the Foreign Relations Committee and didn’t do anything with them. And that was one of the reasons, ultimately, that Ellsberg went to The New York Times, was because he had kept going to the Senate and being turned down.

That ultimately led Fulbright, who was so embarrassed by what happened — it led him to leak information later to Jack Anderson about the CIA and ITT’s work in Chile to overthrow Salvador Allende. And that then led to the creation of a subcommittee to investigate Chile, that was chaired by Frank Church, which was a subcommittee that kind of led to the creation of the Church Committee and his larger investigation of the CIA. So, it was kind of an indirect tie.

And then he later also provided information to Church about the Diem assassination and to the fact that there was evidence that Kennedy knew about — he understood in detail what was going to happen in the coup plots against Diem that the CIA was involved with. And the question really boils down to whether or not Kennedy — Kennedy clearly knew there was going to be violence, and the question was whether he actually knew that the assassination was going to be conducted or not. But it was interesting. He really wanted to provide new documents to the Church Committee, and so he met privately with Church.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jim, I wanted to ask you briefly about another pivotal assassination, the killing of Patrice Lumumba, and the involvement of the CIA in that. You write about that in your book, as well.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah. The Lumumba was one of the assassinations of foreign leaders, along with Castro and others, that the Church Committee investigated and really exposed for the first time. The CIA — if you remember, Congo was in the midst of extreme violence, because it was a Belgian colony and Belgium had been pressured to grant its independence. And Patrice Lumumba was the first independent leader of the independent country. But Belgium very quickly wanted to regain control. They realized they kind of had buyer’s remorse about granting Belgium its — I mean, granting Congo its independence. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, I want to warn you: You just have a minute.

JAMES RISEN: Oh, OK. Well, anyway, so, Patrice Lumumba was overthrown with the backing of Belgium and the CIA. And then he was assassinated. And the question really was — the role of the CIA in that assassination, I believe, was much stronger than what the CIA has said over the decades. Clearly, the CIA helped track Lumumba as he tried to escape, and also had sent hitmen to Congo to try to kill him. So it was very clear that the CIA played a pivotal role in all that.

AMY GOODMAN: James Risen, we’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion, and we’re going to talk more about what ultimately the Church Committee was able to publicly expose with these assassinations. James Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Intercept, his new book is called The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys—and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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