The Church Committee Hearings: Losing Our Religion

Church Committee report (Book II: Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans; PDF)

James Risen has won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting twice. The first win was as part of a New York Times reporting team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for coverage of the September 11th attacks and terrorism. The second win came with his bestselling book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (2006). Another highly commended book he’s published is Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014), detailing the “homeland security industrial complex”, or the rise of the super-intrusive surveillance we all cope with today.

State of War included an article on the NSA’s Stellar Wind program that Risen had written as a Times reporter, with Eric Lichtblau, “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts,” which was quashed by editors and only published14 months later (December 2005) when Risen informed the Times that he’d be including it in his forthcoming book. The story’s suppression of the Stellar Wind story partially inspired Ed Snowden to blow the whistle 8 years later on the government’s global surveillance abuses. Risen later wrote about the Times decision, after he moved to The Intercept, and described it as being based not on national security issues so much as it was a favor to NSA head Michael Hayden by Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman.

Risen himself was inspired by the doings and findings of the Church Committee hearings of 1975, which brought to light and confronted for the first time the often illegal excesses of the tax-payer funded Intelligence Community (IC). This inspiration was the source of his latest book, The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys―and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy. As the title suggests, the biography, co-written with Thomas Risen, is largely a character assessment of the life and work of an ambitious Democratic politician from conservative Idaho who conceivably maintains his integrity while battling the dark shadows of America’s growing empire, powered by the Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC) and enforced by the machinations of the CIA.

It’s a battle that Risen has been reporting on for a couple of decades now, mostly while at the Times, and in a series of books, beginning with The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB (2004). His prize-winning work for the Times while covering the events of 9/11 and its aftermath was followed by brave reporting on how the government responded to the terrorist attack. What it did was awaken the Surveillance State — the tyrannical sleeper cell that Frank Church had warned us all about in his famous August 17, 1975 Meet the Press interview.

At that time, he told us that the US government’s comprehensive monitoring of electronic messages (particularly by the NSA by means of its cooperating partners in the telecommunications industry) while probably important to keeping America safe, could, without honest oversight, slip into criminal shenanigans inimical to the ideals of American democracy. He said, in part:

At the same time that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

This battle to prevent such slippery slippage down the slope has been largely lost. James Risen was one of the first reporters who saw it slipping. When the NYT killed his and Eric Lichtblau’s October 2004 piece on the illegal Bush Administration-ordered warrantless surveillance program that hoovered up millions of citizen records, with the secret cooperation of the telecommunications industry, Risen found himself in the thick of a world gone wrong. Eventually, Risen jumped to the new Intercept, established by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, in the follow-on to the Snowden avalanche of revelations of 2013. The Intercept sought to publish whistle-blowings the MSM eschewed, especially regarding national security state malfeasance. Greenwald would even write a Pulitzer prize-winning book, No Place To Hide, which harkened back to the original inspiration from Frank Church.

The Last Honest Man is an easy, straightforward read, without a lot of trapeze words with skin in the game. It reads like old time journalism used to read: I felt cared for as a reader. It has three parts. The meat of the book, Part Two, covers one year: 1975, the year of the IC hearings that revealed the secret doings, including assassinations, of the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. Part One, from 1924 to 1975, describes his upbringing in Idaho and rise to political power in the state and later, in the footsteps of a legend, to the Senate. Part Three deals with the afterglow of his courageous wranglings with the CIA and his deterioration of health and long-established fight with cancer, and his defeat in 1980 in the changing of the guards in Washington, as America fell in love with Reagan, his economic trickle-downs, and his administration’s return to covert and illegal “national security” operations, including, potentially, treasonous acts.

Part One details his language acquisition skills, his advanced vocabulary — even by Boise standards — his eloquence as an orator and his handy deconstructive skills as a logician. Risen writes, “It was the world of the mind and of words and language that attracted Church.” He first came to public attention after he wrote a letter to the editor of the Boise Capital News that was, writes Risen, “a well-crafted, deeply informed defense of the isolationism of Idaho’s Senator William Borah—an argument for why the United States should stay out of another war as storm clouds gathered over Europe.” After it got published, nobody wanted to believe it was written by a 14 year old kid! Isolationism was a strong sentiment throughout conservative Idaho, and Church was essentially establishing his creds against empire-building from the get-go. Also he was a staunch defender of gun ownership. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. (Try living in a country with no guns, when the Criminal Element takes over.)

But Risen details how that position would change as the newsreel horrors of the Nazis unfurled on cinemas and ached at the viewer for help. Risen describes the national zeitgeist:

A poisonous brew of isolationism, anti-Semitism, and proto-fascism lingered in the political climate in the United States, despite the growing menace posed by Hitler. American politics teetered on a knife-edge.

Church woke from his parochialism, and, as Risen notes how such evil, as represented by the Nazis and Japanese, had evolved a desire for America to inject its Goodness into the world; not Teddy Roosevelt manifest destiny hoo-hah, but a genuine all-pervading feeling that America’s grace and beauty could effect a global warmth. In a high school student speech contest, Church gave tongue to his newly glowing ideals:

No longer an isolationist, he now urged a muscular American role in the world. In his first-ever public address outside Idaho, Frank Church was going to break with the political tradition of William Borah…His speech clearly mirrored the famous “Four Freedoms” speech that Franklin Roosevelt had delivered a few months earlier.

But this notional goodness would also later evolve into a hand-wringing despair of a coming darkside germinating in American values, once “we” double-tapped the Japs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and some generals drew the conclusion that we wuz da new Rome now, motherfukka, and you don’t like it you can lump it.

It’s no wonder, as Risen points out, that many folks would later call him “Senator Cathedral” behind his back, seeing in him a sacrosanctimoniusness that later Kissinger “realists” would recoil at and seek to undermine for the sake of blessed “national security.” Often really meaning, as Church would unveil, ka-ching-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding illicitly obtained, such as with the CIA thugs who enforced for IT&T, in Chile, and took out Salvadore “Whatshisname” Allende’s socialist government and replaced it with Pinochet’s fascism.

Part One has more than a couple of notable narrative flying buttresses and rose windows. One I liked was his growing amorous relationship with Bethine Clark, the daughter of Idaho’s former Democratic governor, Chase Clark. Risen writes of their lifelong relationship,

To a remarkable degree for teenagers, Frank and Bethine were attracted to each other on an intellectual level; they shared a thirst for knowledge and an interest in history, current events, and politics that shaped their friendship long before they began to date.

Bethine, a political agency in her own right, propels Frank’s career, and helps get him over the rough patches of Senatorial resistance to his Mr. Deeds “act,” as well as his lifelong battle with cancer, to which he finally succumbed in January 1984. Bethine was his confidante and political strategist. During their courting years, while he was stationed overseas as a military intelligence analyst at the close of WW2, he expressed in a letter his worries about the reaction of the drop of the Bomb among his fellow GIs. Risen writes:

“I am fearful that the United States is about to launch itself into a program of unprecedented imperialism,” Church wrote Bethine after the Japanese surrendered….

“With few exceptions indeed, people I meet over here speak elatedly of the atomic bomb,” he wrote in another letter to her.

The other bit that was an amusing revelation was that Church was an Army intelligence officer, stationed at Camp Ritchie, not far from Camp David. And:

While Church was there being trained as an analyst, Camp Ritchie was also the secret training center for a unique group of immigrants and Jewish refugees whom the Army had selected for intelligence work against the Nazis. Now famous as “the Ritchie Boys,” they used their native fluency in the language and culture of Germany to interrogate prisoners and defectors, as well as to conduct other spy missions.

That’s right Church trained with the real deal Inglorious Basterds of Tarantino fame. Areeverdeechy! Nazi schweinhunden! What chance did the CIA have against such later Senate committee righteousness?

Risen paints a nice picture in Part One. It’s an America I didn’t really know. I only passed through the place back in the 70s when Greyhound had a $99-for-30-days promotion on, and I may have eaten at a roadside diner in Twin Falls, pie ala mode and coffee (was that Tom Waits over there, with that ‘closing time’ look on his puss). I couldn’t picture Idahoans in their domestic tranquilities, but when I did it was dark, and I couldn’t wait to cross the line into Big Sky country, Mama Missoula. It was years before I thought about Idaho again. I took a girl I liked to a movie in Silver Spring; it was My Own Private Idaho, which apparently was some kind of symbolic gay coming out film. Later, my ultra feminist culture instructor at UMass, who’d jump the fence in a heartbeat to get to you, would claim that the Bard himself was a homosexual. Eyes challenging me. I may have let out a small scream at this provocation. No, I stayed on the bus, thumbing through my Erich Fromm, Anatomy of, I think, or was it Escape from.

Part Two of The Last Honest Man is devoted to the year 1975, the year of Church Committee Hearings, and is by now fairly familiar terrain to any lefty who grew up through the 60s and 70s. Many of us have longed to understand how JFK could be murdered, followed by his alleged murderer, Oswald, and for there to be so little satisfactory answers for the death decades later. Overnight, many Americans suspected an “inside” job, with the CIA the leading suspect in their minds. We became a nation of real honest-to-goodness conspiracy theorists. Even the first phone call Bobby Kennedy made after hearing of his brother’s demise in Dallas was to call the CIA and ask if they had done it, according to Robert Kennedy, Jr., now running for president himself. Probably, Malcolm X was closest to the Truth when asked what he thought of the JFK assassination: “Looks like the chickens came home to roost.” Even Dylan took some shit when he got up to accept the comfortably eft Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s annual Tom Paine award in 1963 and offered up that he could kinda relate to where Lee Harvey Oswald was coming from. (Hisses!)

Risen succinctly frames the Church credo: “Church saw the committee’s task as to act as a kind of constitutional convention, debating the proper balance between national security and civil liberties.” What Church discovered and revealed was that the CIA, his bailiwick (Walter Mondale had been given his own sub-committee to look into the FBI), had become, as the famous 1961 Schlesinger Memo to JFK, following the failed Bay of Pigs, had implied, a virtual parallel government and operated by its own rules, disdainful of elected officials and refusing to be held accountable for its covert deeds. Kennedy had wanted to ‘scatter the Agency to the winds,’ feeling that they made diplomacy far more difficult than it had to be by going unauthorized on missions and operations that had shown over the years failure.

But Church was especially upset by the pursuit of presidents who used the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders under the rubric of ‘national security’. Risen writes:

CIA assassination plots that revealed a long pattern of criminality in American national security policy that had never been fully disclosed or curbed. The CIA plots targeted Patrice Lumumba in Congo; Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam; Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic; and General Rene Schneider in Chile, and combined, took place over four consecutive presidential administrations—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. The horrific stories disclosed by the committee’s investigations of the four cases confirmed Frank Church’s belief that the United States was not always a force for good in the world, and that the rise of an unaccountable and permanent national-security state was perverting American foreign policy.

Even French dissidents approached the CIA to have President Charles deGaulle liquidated in 1965.

Kennedy had inherited from the Eisenhower administration the Lumumba kill, while he himself had concentrated his efforts on bumping off Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro — employing the Mafia, who had gambling operations they’d lost in Castro’s ascent, to get the job done. The revelation was huge. As Risen writes,

[The] CIA’s alliance with the Mafia to kill Castro has since become the most infamous episode in the Agency’s history. The CIA’s decision in the early 1960s to work with the mob to murder the leader of a foreign country revealed the degree to which CIA officials believed there were no rules they had to follow, and no limits on what they could do or who they could do it with. They believed they could get away with anything…Operating in total secrecy and with no independent supervision, the CIA had drifted so far from its 1947 charter that joining forces with the mob no longer seemed unreasonable.

This shock to the system was followed up by an understanding that maybe the CIA also worked in the interests of American corporations overseas, rather than in fealty to the US Constitution and/or even the much-ballyhooed panacea rationale — national security interests. Church found the most notable example of this alliance with corporates in the case of International Telephone and Telegraph’s (ITT) position in Chile prior to the 1970 national elections. Risen writes,

In the months before Chile’s election in September 1970, former CIA director John McCone, a member of ITT’s board of directors, held a series of meetings with his successor at the CIA, Richard Helms, to discuss ITT’s fears of a possible Allende victory, and to ask what the CIA and the Nixon Administration were going to do about it.

This is around the time Henry Kissinger is said to have uttered his famous veiled directive: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” The beginning of the end for the Nixon administration came when it came to light that the Justice Department settled an antitrust suit against ITT in return for a $400,000 donation to help pay for holding the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1972. A year later, Salvadore Allende was assassinated in Chile.

But by far the most famous revelations that came out of the Church Committee hearings were expressed by the Senator in response to a question on Meet the Press, referred to above. It’s worth viewing again:

No place to hide, and here we are.

Another choice bit of information discussed by Risen comes in the Epilogue, where he alludes to then Dick Cheney as an excellent example of the kind of man and politician who would scoff at the need to uphold Constitutional principles in his decisions regarding covert activities and the need to disclose them to the public for scrutiny. Cheney did what he could to erode the efforts of Frank Church. This may have been a good thing, writes Risen:

But by trying to erase Church Committee reforms in order to engage in illicit and immoral activities, Cheney reminded the country of the importance of those reforms. Cheney’s constant harping against the Church Committee’s reforms eventually convinced many Americans that if Cheney hated them so much, maybe they weren’t so bad. Dick Cheney became an unlikely salesman for the Church Committee.

But Cheney may have gotten his way in the end. Five days after 9/11 Cheney went on Meet the Press and gave his famous ‘dark side’ speech, where he describes a national security need to “spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful….” It’s worth a re-viewing: (full video:

The question becomes whether the Church reforms are any longer relevant.

The Last Honest Man is an excellent read about a bygone, almost quaint past when we could say with a straight face there were honest wo/men in politics and mean it. I highly recommend it to those who still cherish the Good Fight that occurred in the 60s and 70s.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.