Latest Domestic Surveillance Issues Conjure Up Church Committee's Probe Overreach by U.S. intelligence agencies and calls for more oversight — may sound like recent headlines but it happened 4 decades ago. The response: a landmark Senate inquiry by the Church Committee.

Latest Domestic Surveillance Issues Conjure Up Church Committee's Probe

Latest Domestic Surveillance Issues Conjure Up Church Committee's Probe

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Overreach by U.S. intelligence agencies and calls for more oversight — may sound like recent headlines but it happened 4 decades ago. The response: a landmark Senate inquiry by the Church Committee.


Congress passed a law last week to end the government's mass collection of individuals' phone records. It came after years of public outrage over domestic surveillance, stories of overreach by U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers in the dark about what spies are really up to. Forty years ago, many of those same concerns gave rise to the Church Committee. It was the first inquiry by the Senate into abuse by the nation's spymasters and also the first real attempt by Congress to rein them in. NPR's David Welna has this look back.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was the summer of 1975 and Sen. Frank Church was chairman of the new committee that would later go by his name. Then, as now, Americans were concerned about intelligence agencies spying not just on foreigners as they were supposed to do, but on Americans as well. Shortly before the first public hearings, the Idaho Democrat laid out the dangers of the U.S. government spying on its citizens.


FRANK CHURCH: Such is the government's potential for monitoring any telephone conversation, any telegram, any unguarded conversation. There would in a word be no place left to hide.

WELNA: Like Congress's recent effort to curb the bulk collection of phone records, the Church Committee's work was prompted by secrets leaked to newspapers. The panel was formed following a New York Times expose of illegal domestic spying by the Central Intelligence Agency on antiwar protesters and other dissidents. NPR's Nina Totenberg reported at the time on the committee's first public hearings.


NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The focus of the oncoming hearings will be an examination of how the CIA and other government agencies spy on the American people.


CHURCH: The hearing will please come to order.

WELNA: The room was packed as Chairman Church gaveled in a hearing featuring James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's recently-resigned head of counterintelligence. As TV cameras rolled, Church asked Angleton about a CIA domestic surveillance program kept secret from even the president.


CHURCH: Didn't the CIA have an affirmative duty to inform the president about such a program?

JAMES JESUS ANGLETON: I believe so without any question.

CHURCH: But it apparently was not done. You did not inform the president. Director Helms did not inform the president.

ANGLETON: I would say, Sir, not by way of any excuse, but those are very turbulent periods for the intelligence community.

WELNA: And Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale had another question for Angleton - why had both the CIA and the FBI been opening the private mail of Americans, including novelist John Steinbeck, civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Mondale himself?


WALTER MONDALE: What counterintelligence objective was it thought you were achieving in opening the mail of what most of us would assume to be very patriotic, thoughtful, decent Americans?

ANGLETON: Sir, I would - I would prefer if possible to respond to that question in executive session.

WELNA: In other words, in secret. The Church Committee's public grilling of top intelligence officials was in fact a turning point for a Congress that never had investigated the nation's spy agencies. Looking back on those hearings, NPR's Totenberg thinks they were also a turning point for an American public disillusioned by the war in Vietnam and Watergate.

TOTENBERG: Before, most people trusted the government. They thought it was doing something right. And now they found out that the government was doing a lot of wrong things. It's like the curtain was suddenly pulled off of the dirty business of spying, and it was pretty ugly.

WELNA: Only two members of the Church Committee are still living - Mondale and Colorado Democrat Gary Hart. Mondale considers Congress's action last week to curtail the collection of phone records part of what the Church Committee got started.

MONDALE: This just keeps right on being relevant. You know, the technology changes, making it more challenging. We were dealing with landline phones when we were on the committee. Now, it's all changed, but the same principles apply.

WELNA: Civil liberties advocates agree the Church Committee has left its mark. The abuse it exposed, ranging from assassination attempts of foreign leaders to infiltration of domestic war protesters, is no longer cropping up. But Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice says Congress is falling short in its oversight.

ELIZABETH GOITEIN: We haven't had a Church Committee today. And it took the Church Committee - it took the most rigorous congressional investigation in history to unearth all of this evidence of abuse. So I'm not sanguine about saying, you know, there is no abuse happening today. I don't think we've had the investigation necessary to know for sure.

WELNA: Indeed, much of what's recently been learned about secret surveillance programs comes not from Congress, but from a person born seven years after the Church Committee ended its work - former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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