By Jeremy Kuzmarov
Russia-Gate and CIA ties to Ukrainian death squads, along with killer drone program and worldwide surveillance apparatus, necessitates new investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies modeled after the Church Committee hearings of 1975.
The year 1975 was designated “the year of intelligence,” a season of inquiry into America’s spy agencies and their abuses.
Senator Frank Church (D-ID) headed a major Senate investigative committee, which exposed massive CIA and FBI criminality—ranging from its surveillance of Americans and efforts to destroy dissenting groups to its involvement in illegal drug testing and assassination.
As a consequence of these revelations, new reforms were enacted to try to reign in the so-called “deep state,” though these were relatively mild and gradually reversed.
Today, a new Senate investigation modeled after the Church Committee is urgently needed.
In the nearly 50 years since the Church Committee hearings were held, the intelligence agencies have grown exceedingly more powerful, and replicated the pattern of abuse prevalent in the immediate post-World War II era.
These abuses have included: a) running secret torture sites in the War on Terror; b) coordinating a killer drone program in which even U.S. citizens have been targeted without any judicial process; and c) orchestrating a fake political scandal—Russiagate—based on fraudulent dossiers, which helped condition the public to support a new Cold War with Russia and which was designed to bring down a sitting U.S. president.
The CIA and associated intelligence agencies have additionally: a) expanded an unprecedented surveillance apparatus that violates the U.S. Constitution; b) promoted disinformation in support of illegal wars in Libya and Syria among other countries; c) continued to meddle in foreign countries through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and to support color revolutions designed to facilitate regime change in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and d) helped coordinate Phoenix-style operations in Ukraine through liaison with the Ukrainian Secret Service (SBU) which routinely kidnaps civilians and executes them without trial.
Further investigation is also needed into the extent to which the CIA/FBI and related intelligence agencies have a) adopted COINTELPRO-style operations today designed to manipulate public opinion, co-opt protest movements and destroy the U.S. Left; b) perpetrated black-flag or terrorist attacks as part of a strategy of tension designed to sow fear in the public and advance legislation that violates civil liberties and the Bill of Rights; and c) aided presidential candidates such as George H.W. Bush (a former CIA director), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama among others, and in the process further tarnished the impression of the U.S. as a so-called democratic country.
Revelations of CIA Malfeasance
The Church Committee remains one of the U.S. Senate’s most significant investigations.
It was prompted by a rash of revelations in the media about CIA malfeasance, including: a) illegal domestic surveillance of Americans under Operation Chaos; b) the CIA’s support for torture in the infamous Phoenix Program in Vietnam; and c) its support for a fascist coup d’état in Chile in 1973—the extent of which was unknown until the Church Committee investigations.
CIA whistleblower Philip Agee, a co-founder of this Magazine, had also caused a stir in 1975 with the release of his tell-all book, Inside the Company, exposing CIA criminality in Latin America in the context of the political economy of U.S. imperialism.
“A New Kind of McCarthyism”
The Church Committee investigation was preceded by two additional investigations: The Rockefeller Commission, which examined the CIA’s domestic surveillance—carried out in violation of the CIA’s charter—and the Pike Committee, headed by New York Representative Otis Pike (D-NY), which concluded that the CIA had become “a private tool of the executive branch.”
Ron Dellums (D-CA), a member of the Pike committee, called for prohibition of all covert activity since they did not fit the democratic principles that the U.S. stood for.
The Pike Committee recommended a) the establishment of a permanent House committee on intelligence, b) the disclosure of the intelligence budget, and c) transparent financial accountability and restrictions on the transfer of funding between agencies and departments.
Among the fiercest critics of the Pike Committee report was Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser and, later, Secretary of State, who claimed that the committee had “practiced a new kind of McCarthyism.” These were the bitter statements of an Executive Branch authority contemptuous of any investigation into its abuses of power.
Exposing Unlawful and Improper Conduct
The Church Committee held hearings in September and October 1975 after months-long investigations which were in part designed to educate the public about the “unlawful or improper conduct” of the intelligence community.
Between 1947 and 1975, the CIA had been placed under the authority of four different subcommittees which met only occasionally and were “often nothing more than a tool to silence the opponents of clandestine intelligence activity,” according to historian Dafydd Townley 
Former White House Counsel Clark Clifford, who had been part of the Truman administration when the CIA was created, said that, “for nearly thirty years the CIA had wheeled and dealed without supervision. Nobody has really interfered with them in Congress, the White House or the National Security Council. They just free-wheeled their way on and on.”
Though voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, Frank Church emerged as a leading critic of the Vietnam War by the late 1960s and co-authored legislation trimming the president’s war powers. He received a strong rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
Fifty-one years old at the time of the hearings, Church’s career ambition was to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee like his political idol William Borah, an isolationist also from Idaho, who had supported U.S. neutrality in World War I; favored the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war; and opposed U.S. imperialism in Central America in the 1920s.
The Economist of London characterized Church as “the scourge of immorality in undercover intelligence operations and the inquisitor of corrupt practices by American corporations abroad.” The latter characterization resulted from Church’s presiding over a the Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations in the early 1970s, which exposed corrupt practices, including bribery, involving corporations such as Lockheed, and Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco).
In chairing the Senate intelligence hearings, Church was motivated by his political ideal of a transparent and accountable democratic process. He feared that the theme of national security had been used “as a mitigating force to allow those in power to manipulate and circumvent the processes of American democracy.”
Church explained that the inquiry was designed to “safeguard the legitimate interests of the country, identify the abuses that had occurred, and to prevent the United States from slipping into the practices of a police state.”
Though the Church Committee staff did not always receive documents in a timely fashion, they enjoyed unprecedented access to materials that had never before been made public.
One limitation was that the committee allowed the intelligence agencies to predominantly shoulder the guilt for illegal activities that ultimately derived from the White House. CIA lawyers also stonewalled investigation into CIA crimes such as the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a former socialist government official in Chile gunned down in Washington D.C.
Several members of the Church Committee were extremely friendly to the CIA, including Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who told NBC’s “Tomorrow Show” that he had “begged Church not to get into assassinations,” Howard Baker (R-TN), who helped cover up the Iran-Contra affair as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff (1988) and was even offered the post of CIA director, and Walter Huddleston (D-KY), who in 1980 helped pass a bill limiting congressional oversight of the CIA.
The Church Committee’s most explosive revelations were about the CIA’s recruitment of underworld figures—including John Roselli, Sam Giancana, and Santo Trafficante—to try to assassinate Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had also sanctioned the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam whom the Kennedy administration merely wanted kidnapped and overthrown though not necessarily murdered—as he was.
The Church Committee, additionally, revealed that the Nixon administration had supported a 1970 Chilean plot to kidnap the head of the Chilean army, General René Schneider, who was shot to death with a machine gun that had been supplied to his executioners by the CIA.
Schneider was a constitutionalist who refused to support the CIA’s plot to overthrow Chile’s legally elected President Salvador Allende, a socialist whom President Richard Nixon branded “unacceptable to the United States.”
The Church committee concluded that the FBI and the Warren Commission were deficient in their investigation into the JFK assassination.
Further explosive was the Church Committee’s examination of the CIA’s unauthorized storage of toxic agents, including shellfish toxins, in large amounts that made it clear that the Agency was not interested in “purely defensive uses as it claimed.”
The eleven grams of poison kept by the CIA, despite a presidential order to destroy it all in 1970, was confirmed by CIA Director William Colby (1973-1976) to be part of a joint Army-CIA operation that had the potential to kill thousands of people.
The Church Committee further revealed the Agency’s development of a poison dart gun to be used for assassinating foreign leaders and other enemies of the state.
“Degrading to a Free Society”
The Church Committee blazed a trail for Edward Snowden by establishing public hearings on National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, which was previously unknown to the U.S. public. Church had uncovered that the NSA used U.S. telecommunications corporations, such as ITT Communications, Western Union Telegraph Company and RCA Communications, to collect information on U.S. citizens in an operation codenamed Shamrock.
As part of its data collection efforts, the NSA worked alongside the FBI and CIA in maintaining a watch list that was first compiled under instructions from U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The targets were U.S. citizens thought to be associated either with organized crime or communist Cuba.
After the operation expanded and became known as MINARET, the targets widened to include participants in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and political activists like Jane Fonda and Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman.
Church sought the exposure of these programs because he saw the “incredible potential of an agency such as the NSA to impede the daily lives and freedoms of American citizens.”
The same held true for the FBI, whose counterintelligence operation (COINTELPRO) lasting from 1956 to 1971 aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize political dissent within the United States.”
Targets of COINTELPRO ranged from the American Communist Party and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the Black Panther Party and Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Black-bag jobs were employed where FBI agents illegally broke into and entered homes to conduct warrantless surveillance, obtained IRS tax returns and prompted IRS investigations into individuals and organizations. FBI agents further spread rumors about informants in an attempt to sow divisions within radical groups, and planted provocateurs to discredit them or set up members for arrest.
In its final report, the Church Committee labeled such actions by the FBI as “indisputably degrading to a free society.”
One of the most shocking revelations concerned the FBI’s harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the target of “the most complete surveillance imaginable.”
Yet more dirty tricks had been planned under the Huston Plan—named after Nixon’s White House adviser Tom Huston—a coordinated attack on left-wing radicals which involved organized surveillance of protest groups, conducted largely illegally through break-ins, unwarranted surveillance, mail opening and electronic eavesdropping.
Winds of Change
After holding 126 committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewing some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and combing through 110,000 documents, the Church Committee in its final report, published on April 29, 1976, concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies had “undermined the constitutional rights of citizens primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.”
Afterwards, in response to the wide public demand for reform, a permanent select committee on intelligence was set up whose aim was to facilitate greater transparency in the intelligence agencies and control overreach by the Executive Branch.
In 1976, the Clark Amendment was passed, barring CIA support for right-wing rebels in Angola, and, in 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which established specialized courts that had to authorize any surveillance operations, hence setting legal limitations on domestic intelligence gathering within the U.S.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter selected as his running mate Walter Mondale who was part of the Church Committee.
After Carter’s victory, he appointed as CIA director Stansfield Turner, who gutted some 20 percent of the CIA’s clandestine service (reportedly some 800 operatives) in the Halloween massacre.
The Empire Strikes Back
From the outset, the CIA and Executive Branch authorities had tried to discredit the Church Committee hearings.
They claimed that the committee’s activities were a national security risk that emboldened Moscow and resulted in the murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch on Christmas Eve 1975 in Athens.
Richard Cottrell, author of Gladio: NATO’s Dagger at the Heart of Europe: The Pentagon-Nazi-Mafia Terror Axis, suggests that Welch was a victim of “deep state machinations,” as he was never supplied with a bodyguard even though he had been outed as a CIA agent—in a country where the CIA was reviled for having supported a fascist coup.
The master of ceremonies at Welch’s carefully choreographed funeral at Arlington Cemetery, was, not coincidentally, Dick Cheney, who was then serving as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff.