The Church Committee was formed following one of the most controversial events in American history. Watergate had revived American feelings of distrust in their government. Also, Seymour Hersh, of the New York Times, ran an article on December 22, 1974, concerning alleged intelligence abuses by the CIA and other intelligence agencies; American suspicions grew. In an attempt to respond and alleviate American distrust, the Ford Administration and both the House of Representatives and the Senate launched investigations into the intelligence community. On January 27, 1975, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 21 with a vote of eighty-two to four. This resolution created the Church Committee, which was to accomplish two things: one, to investigate abuses; and two, to propose legislative remedies to found abuses and other shortcomings of the intelligence community.
A large number of people believed that the intelligence community had crossed some sort of line when they read Hersh’s article. Hersh claimed that “[t]he Central Intelligence Agency, directly violated its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States.” He also reported that the CIA had files on ten thousand American citizens, that the CIA had illegally broken into private property, wiretapped, and illegally inspected United States citizens’ mail. The intelligence activities Hersh’s story addressed were related to what William Colby, the director of the CIA during the investigation, called “the family jewels,” in a document compiled months earlier concerning “questionable” activities of the CIA. Upon seeing the so-called “family jewels,” President Gerald Ford realized his and previous administrations had a significant disclosure problem. With the purpose being to deal with these accusations before Congress did, the Ford Administration set up the Rockefeller Commission, chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Adhering to the belief in accountability through checks and balances and in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, Congress did not believe Ford could objectively investigate his own branch, so both the Senate and the House of Representatives set up their own investigations into the operations of the intelligence community.
Th House and Senate were indeed correct! The Rockefeller Commission was an attempt to reduce the damage done by the Church Committee. President Ford created the “Rockefeller Commission” to whitewash CIA history and propose toothless reforms. The commission’s namesake, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, is himself a major CIA figure. Five of the commission’s eight members are also members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a CIA-dominated organization.
The Senate gave the Church Committee nine months to complete its investigation, but when the Rockefeller Report was released there was nothing in it concerning assassination plots by the CIA on foreign leaders, which some in the Senate believed were central to the scandal.
The Church Committee (officially the US Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities chaired by Senator Frank Church) finally exposed the activities in the 1950s to ’70s of illegality by the CIA and FBI after certain activities had been revealed by the Watergate affair. The Committee uncovered, among many other things, that the CIA had violated its charter to perform only gathering of intelligence.
For example, the assassinations of Allende in Chile and Mossadegh in Iran. Assassinations against Central and South American leaders and revolutionaries, as well as Africa, Middle East and East Asia. The list was tremendous.
According to Frank Smist, a congressional committee scholar, “in carrying out its Senate mandate, the Church committee had conducted one of the most sweeping and intensive investigations in the history of the Senate.” This included thirteen published reports, released in April of 1976, and an interim report. The interim report of the Church Committee, issued on November 20, 1975, revealed that there had been numerous assassination attempts on foreign leaders, particularly Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, General Rene Schneider of Chile, and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.
The other thirteen reports revealed that the intelligence agencies had conducted activities that went beyond protecting national security. The reports also found that there was a lack of accountability and control in the intelligence community, and abuses of privacy and certain civil liberties of US citizens.
These hearings also discovered that the Internal Revenue Service had been used by the intelligence community to punish organizations, and that from 1953 to 1973 the CIA had operated a mail watch program. Copies of these letters were then given to the FBI, the CIA’s Soviet Division, and others in the intelligence community. Church concluded the hearings exposed what he came to believe was one of the major problems with the intelligence community. He said, “I cannot think of a clearer case that illustrates the attitude that the CIA lives outside the law, beyond the law, and that although others must adhere to it, the CIA sits above it, and you cannot run a free society that way.”
Specifically, the Church Committee found that the intelligence community had opened “hundreds of thousands of letters and millions of telegrams.” They concluded that the FBI, using its counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO, which was “designed to ‘disrupt’ and ‘neutralize’ groups deemed to be threats to national security,” had infiltrated civil rights groups such as the Women’s Liberation Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—groups that had no evidence of criminal activities or communist ties. The reports revealed that the intelligence community had engaged in a campaign to illegally discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the committee found that the intelligence community had investigated the political opponents of every US president since Franklin Roosevelt.
They even declassified a “Heart Attack Gun”, a dart gun laced with a lethal shellfish poison that rapidly enters the bloodstream causing a heart attack the Agency had made for the use of killing someone without it being detected. Once the damage is done, the poison denatures quickly, so that an autopsy is very unlikely to detect that the heart attack resulted from anything other than natural causes. The committee admitted that – as part of its “Cointelpro” campaign – the FBI had used many provocateurs in the 1950s through 1970s to carry out violent acts and falsely blame them on political activists. These hearings revealed unauthorized storage of toxic agents by Nathan Gordon, a CIA scientist, who had gone against Nixon’s orders and did not destroy the entire shellfish toxin stockpile as directed.
Cancer, car accidents, skiing accidents, suicide, boating accidents, heart attacks, and just plain being shot were common assassination methods. The CIA had also paid a number of well-known domestic and foreign journalists (from big-name media outlets like Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CBS and others) to publish CIA propaganda. The CIA also reportedly funded at least one movie, the animated “Animal Farm,” by George Orwell. The hearings, although recorded in full in congressional record, the mainstream media and official policies, is still largely not taught in American schools on recent history. The American public still has no idea this was ever actually confirmed or even took place. It is common for people to still refer to any of these assassinations as a joke or made up conspiracy.
There were those who supported the investigation, but not Church, and believed the investigation, chaired by Church, did not go far enough or move the intelligence community toward substantial reform. The New York Times ran an article on July 18, 1975, and quoted Church as saying, “the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had thus far found ‘no hard evidence’ linking any former Presidents to alleged attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate foreign heads of state…the CIA…‘may have been behaving like a rogue elephant on a rampage.’”
However, not everyone agreed with Church’s belief that the CIA was a “rogue elephant.” The investigation of assassination plots sparked debate, and questions were raised concerning the Church Committee’s reliability and Church’s motives. The investigation of assassination plots demonstrated that the plots occurred under Democratic as well as Republican presidents, and it appeared to Church’s opponents that Church’s comparison of the CIA to a “rogue elephant on a rampage” was a less than subtle attempt to let past Democratic administrations off the hook. Statements like these implied that past administrations were not fully aware of these assassination plots or other intelligence violations.
Concerning the intelligence agencies, Church alleged, “we are not seeking to undermine these organizations, we are seeking to understand what’s going on. Our ultimate objective is not to wreck them, but, if necessary, to reform them. In a free society, nothing is more crucial than to maintain intelligence activities and police activities in accordance with a very high and strict standard.” In this public appearance Church also explained his belief that a balance must be maintained between individual freedoms and “good order.” He made the effective analogy of an equilibrium and said that if it “ever tips too far in one direction, it results in tyranny. If it tips too far in the other, it results in anarchy.”
Church reported the progress of the committee to the Senate on October 10, 1975. He told the Senate that the investigation had exposed “a theme of lawlessness and lack of accountability in the intelligence services. Our findings reflect not isolated occurrences but a pattern in which the Constitution, the statutes of the land, and the orders of the President have been ignored.” As a result, Church and the committee later recommended “a new Standing Committee of the Senate to oversee and make continuing studies of the intelligence activities and programs of the US Government.” He claimed the recommendation “places in proper balance the responsibilities that need to be exercised under the Constitution” and a standing committee would need “legislative authority” to have effective oversight of “the CIA, the NSA, the DIA, the National Intelligence Components in the Department of Defense and the intelligence activities of the FBI.” Among others, the committee made five major recommendations, which included that “all political assassinations were to be banned…, no efforts were to be undertaken to subvert democratic governments…, no support was to be given to the police or international security forces of any country that violated human rights.” The committee also recommended that journalist and clergy could not be used for intelligence gathering, nor could drug testing be performed on people without their consent.
Church found out another trick of the establishment for his efforts to expose their many crimes – that of political assassination. The establishment media ran a smear campaign on Congressman Church, both nationally and locally, calling him a “threat to national security” and slanting every article against him. He went from what many considered the top Democratic Presidential candidate in 1976 to failing to be re-elected to Congress in 1980, both of which were believed to be results of his having chaired the committee investigation of the CIA and FBI.
Church’s involvement in the committee more clearly played a part in Church’s loss of the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1976, and can be largely credited for Church being overlooked as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. Ashby and Gramer believed that the Church’s involvement in the committee directly before and during a presidential campaign “trapped him in several ways.” First, it delayed his announcement as an official candidate. Second, it allowed his critics to claim he was using the Church Committee as a springboard to advance his political career to the next level. Third, Church’s critics were allowed to question his patriotism and claimed that he “jeopardized national security.” Church did not finish the investigation of the intelligence community until deep into the primary election campaign of 1976. According to Church he did this because he believed, “The recommendations to be made by the committee are so important. I have decided I cannot walk away from them.”
It was learned in 2016 that President Ford passed investigative materials concerning assassinations along to the Church Committee of the United States Senate and then attempted—but failed—to suppress the Church Committee’s report. Dick Cheney had successfully removed the entire 86-page section on CIA assassinations and made numerous more edits to the report before it was submitted.