Three weeks after I took the oath of office in the Senate in 1975, then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield appointed me to a newly created committee — the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, which soon came to be known as the "Church Committee," after its chairman, the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. Out of 11 members, I was by far the youngest.
The Senate had impaneled the committee because of increasing reports of abuse of authority by the country's myriad intelligence agencies under the Nixon administration as well as previous administrations. For two years, the committee investigated broadly — the CIA, FBI, DIA and NSA were all within its purview — and finally, in 1976, it issued a series of recommendations designed to prevent future abuses.
Today, one has only to consider the behavior of the Bush administration during the Iraq war to appreciate how soon we forget, how little we learn and how pervasive is the tendency to violate civil and constitutional liberties in the name of war. Virtually all of the reforms recommended by the Church Committee — many of which were passed into law — have been evaded, ignored or violated in the name of the "war on terrorism."
It is often said that the first victim of war is the truth. In fact, the first victim of American war is the liberty of Americans.
During our investigations of intelligence abuse, we discovered that the government had engaged in widespread surveillance of a very large number of American citizens. Civil rights leaders were monitored. Antiwar groups were under surveillance. Domestic phones were tapped. Mail was opened. The FBI conducted warrantless "black bag" break-ins of private residences and offices. We wrote an entire report on warrantless electronic surveillance by the FBI — exactly what the NSA has now been authorized to do by the president.
One particularly egregious program, code-named COINTELPRO, went beyond the mere collection of intelligence on domestic groups to actually trying to "disrupt" or "neutralize" target groups. The excuse given by the FBI and others was, "We are at war, and we need to do everything we can to defeat our enemy." Sound familiar?
In some cases, the intelligence services even turned violent. The CIA, for instance, conducted the infamous Phoenix program that resulted in the systematic assassination of thousands of Vietnamese villagers accused of collaborating with the Viet Cong. This was the 1970s version of Abu Ghraib. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations we tried (with obsessive insistence in the case of Fidel Castro) to assassinate at least six foreign leaders. Too bad we didn't have the Predator then. It would have been much simpler.
Our committee's work resulted in many reforms. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 required special intelligence courts to approve national security wiretaps. The Bush administration, however, has found that statute inconvenient and, predictably, has ignored it.
Our committee also recommended presidential "findings" before extraordinary covert operations were undertaken. This was not designed to undermine the CIA but to protect it; until then it had been left dangling in the wind when misused by presidents who wished to claim "plausible deniability."
That reform surfaced during another period of political abuse — the infamous Iran-Contra affair, involving Bible-shaped cakes, trading with the enemy, lying to Congress and avoidance of accountability. It turns out that President Reagan, contrary to his own memory, had signed a "finding" authorizing the whole bizarre episode.
Again to support the CIA, our panel laid the groundwork for the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act that prevented identification of CIA operatives. This was the act that now appears to have been violated by at least half of the Bush White House in its demented efforts to punish Ambassador Joe Wilson by "outing" his undercover wife.
So what goes around, comes around. Here we are again, 30 years later, in yet another unwise war, no wiser and once again willing to sacrifice constitutional liberties for security expediency. If there was one lesson all of us who served on the Church Committee learned, it was that there are no secrets, that everything comes out and that the sacrifice of liberty is almost never justified by improved security.
If the U.S. is to prevail, it must grow up. It must learn from its mistakes, and not repeat them. It must finally understand that our security cannot be ensured by sacrifice of our own liberties.