Civil Liberties

Domestic Spying Requires a New Probe, Say Former Church Committee Members


Sen. Frank Church
U.S. Congress

When America's spooks got out of hand with sock drawer rummaging at home and whacking foreign dignitaries overseas in the 1970s, the U.S. Senate set up a committee under Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) to investigate the shenanigans. In the course of the probe, Sen. Church warned: "If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back." He and fellow committee members recommended reforms for reining the spy agencies in. Now that the country's spooks are back to sticking their noses into Americans' private business, former members of the Church Committee want Congress to launch a new investigation, with renewed limits on the snoops.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation published a letter from the counsel, advisers, and staff members of the Church Committee, which remarks in reference to their original effort:

In 1975, the public learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting and analyzing international telegrams of American citizens since the 1940s under secret agreements with all the major telegram companies. Years later, the NSA instituted another "Watch List" program to intercept the international communications of key figures in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements among other prominent citizens. Innocent Americans were targeted by their government…

Our findings were startling. Broadly speaking, we determined that sweeping domestic surveillance programs, conducted under the guise of foreign intelligence collection, had repeatedly undermined the privacy rights of US citizens. A number of reforms were implemented as a result, including the creation of permanent intelligence oversight committees in Congress and the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Now, in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations:

The scale of domestic communications surveillance the NSA engages in today dwarfs the programs revealed by the Church Committee…As former members and staff of the Church Committee we can authoritatively say: the erosion of public trust currently facing our intelligence community is not novel, nor is its solution. A Church Committee for the 21st Century—a special congressional investigatory committee that undertakes a significant and public reexamination of intelligence community practices that affect the rights of Americansand the laws governing those actions—is urgently needed. Nothing less than the confidence of the American public in our intelligence agencies and, indeed, the federal government, is at stake.

Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, some of the reforms implemented by the original Church Committee were turned back on themselves once the committee went away and the snoops went back to work. Modified by the security state, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed to rein spies in during the 1970s now serves as an enabler to them. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that law created as an oversight body has become little more than a rubber stamp.

Which doesn't mean that Congress shouldn't follow up on the letter and make an effort to investigate and once again rein in the NSA and company. But we shouldn't assume that this will be any more permanent a fix than the last effort, or that we'll do more than buy ourselves a little time until new reforms are subverted.

Reformist committees come and go, but the eavesdropping bureaucracy seems to live on, always posing a danger to the people it supposedly protects.