Why Activists Today Should Still Care About the 40-Year-Old Church Committee Report

The Church Committee Report reveals the lengths the government was willing to go in order to crush grassroots activism and spy on American citizens

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Today, if you go on Twitter, you can find the NSA tweeting about its commitment to recycling, or the CIA joking about still not knowing the whereabouts of Tupac. Why are these once-sinister and little-known spy agencies so eager to put on a friendly face for us? The answer can be traced back to the Church Committee of 1975-76, which forever changed the way Americans looked at the intelligence agencies meant to serve them.

Last week marked 40 years since the final report of the Church Committee was released to the public. You can read its report here. Set up in January 1975 in the wake of Watergate, and shortly after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed the CIA’s role in not only undermining foreign governments but in spying on U.S. citizens, the Committee spent 16 months trawling through classified and unclassified documents and grilling hundreds of counterintelligence officers, CIA directors, FBI higher-ups and other officials in order to shine a light on the scope of the intelligence community’s abuses over the previous decades.

The result was an unprecedented public spotlight on the shadowy world of American intelligence that forever altered the public’s perception of the United States’ various intelligence agencies. This was particularly so with the NSA, whose role and even existence was little-known among the public prior to the Committee’s revelations.

More important was what the Committee actually revealed. Its final report, released on April 26, 1976, detailed a stunningly broad scope of lawlessness and abuses by the intelligence world, which had, under successive presidents, turned its considerable powers increasingly on the American people themselves. Agencies like the CIA and FBI appeared to be acting as governments in themselves, flouting legal restraints as they ran programs that elected officials, even right up to the president, were kept in the dark about.

Most accounts of the Church Committee tend to focus on certain now-infamous programs that have become emblematic of agency abuses. There was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a program of covert action launched against the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, perceived to be homegrown threats to the social and political order. The program baldly attempted to disrupt and destroy social movements like the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society. It also hatched bizarre schemes like a plan proposed by the FBI to hit printing plants with a substance “duplicating a scent of the most foul smelling feces available.” According to the report, at least 18 percent of the program squarely targeted speakers, teachers, writers and meetings or peaceful demonstrations, as opposed to criminal activity.

There was also the FBI’s warrantless wiretapping program, the NSA’s warrantless collection of telegrams and other international communications and the CIA and FBI’s mail opening programs, which in one case saw more than 215,000 pieces of mail get opened, photographed and filed. Many of these programs were incestuous, with the resulting information being shared among various intelligence agencies and government departments.

Less talked about today are programs like the military’s surveillance of domestic protest groups, maintaining files on at least 100,000 Americans ranging from Jesse Jackson to Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, or the FBI’s “Custodial Detention List,” a list kept by the FBI of foreigners and citizens to be immediately detained in case war broke out. Perhaps most shocking was the Huston Plan, which in the report’s words called for “the highest political figure in the nation to sanction lawlessness within the intelligence community” – namely, relaxing the rules around surveillance of US citizens and allowing agencies to break into targets’ homes, among other things. The measures were briefly authorized by Nixon, until J. Edgar Hoover convinced the president to change his mind, out of fear that the measures would be discovered and he personally would be thrown under the bus.

The Committee’s wide-ranging revelations prompted what is often viewed as a sea-change in how intelligence agencies operate. In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), creating a secret court to issue warrants for domestic spying. The FISA Court is commonly thought-of as the Committee’s greatest legacy, establishing much-needed oversight of the country’s intelligence agencies, which had run roughshod over Americans’ civil liberties.

In reality, the tangible legacy of the Committee is far more ambiguous. The FISA Court today is widely seen as little more than a rubber stamp, declining just 0.3 percent of the surveillance requests that have come its way over the last 33 years. Even then, when it came to the most controversial pre-Snowden surveillance measure – the Bush administration’s post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping program – the government simply bypassed the court. Not only that, but if anything, domestic surveillance has intensified since the Committee completed its work, with the NSA today scooping up and storing untold amounts of Americans’ communications data far more intimate and revealing than that which so concerned the Committee four decades before. Only a few days ago, the Supreme Court granted the FBI the power to hack into potentially millions of computers with a single warrant. And these are just the things we know about.

How should the Committee’s legacy be seen in this light then? What are its accomplishments if not the comprehensive rolling back of state surveillance?

The Church Committee’s true value lies in the lessons we can glean from its findings. More than any practical effects on government policy, and even more than the way it changed the American public’s perception of the US intelligence apparatus, it is the prescient nature of its warnings about the power of the deep state that form its most lasting legacy.

Powers meant for national security are almost invariably turned against domestic populations

Many of the programs detailed in the Church Committee’s report began as efforts to thwart foreign threats to security. However, it didn’t take long before a combination of mission creep and deteriorating social conditions – namely, the rise of protest movements and terrorist acts – led intelligence agencies to turn their all-seeing gaze inward.

“Vague terms such as ‘subversive activities,’ ‘national interest,’ ‘domestic security,’ and ‘national security’ were relied upon to electronically monitor many individuals who engaged in no criminal activity and who, by any objective standard, represented no genuine threat to the security of the United States,” the report states about the FBI’s warrantless wiretapping program.

The Committee recognized the vast potential for abuse in these programs, warning that “the NSA’s vast technological capability … could be turned against the American people, at great cost to liberty.” An unlikely champion of this view was Tom Huston, the former White House aide who in 1970 had pushed Nixon to authorize the Huston Plan, broadening the surveillance powers of various intelligence agencies (not knowing that some of these agencies had secretly been using such powers for years). Five years later, this was his view:

The risk was that you would get people who would be susceptible to political considerations as opposed to national security considerations … to move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.

The Committee has only been vindicated in this respect by subsequent events, whether in the NYPD’s spying on peaceful Muslim communities or the huge quantities of high-tech military equipment meant for war that have been turned over to local police departments.

Those in any way dissenting from the social order are the most likely targets

The standard defense of state surveillance is that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” For most people, this is an easy stance to take given that, on the whole, the vast majority of people are likely not targets of state surveillance. Rather, as the Church Committee’s final report, laid out, it’s those challenging power structures, or even simply deviating from established norms, who are most likely to be seen as enemies.

Whether FBI, CIA, NSA or the military, the various domestic counterintelligence programs uncovered by the Committee tended to share virtually the same targets. They were members of the broad “New Left” – which the FBI couldn’t define, except as “more or less an attitude” – members of various communist and socialist parties, domestic dissidents and antiwar protesters. While the programs also targeted white supremacist groups like the KKK, they were by far most concerned with members of the increasingly militant Left, which they suspected of being under foreign influence.

Thanks to these broad labels, the targets of the government’s counterintelligence programs ended up enveloping scientists, academics studying the Soviet Union, authors like John Steinbeck, and two student free speech protesters defending “the use of the classic four-letter word,” because it “shows obvious disregard for decency and established morality.” It even involved something as petty as pressuring student newspapers to change their content.

However, with civil liberties and privacy continuing to be perceived as a white, middle-class issue, it’s these programs’ zeroing in on civil rights groups and “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” (which in the FBI’s mind included Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and “most black student groups”) that is perhaps most notable.

Most people today know about the FBI’s vindictive harassment of Martin Luther King uncovered by the Committee, which included everything from spying on King to sending him threatening letters and attempting to discredit him in the eyes of supporters. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. The FBI illegally wiretapped Malcolm X, Huey Newton and other “black extremist leaders,” as well as Puerto Rican nationalist groups and pro-Palestinian organizations. It aimed to “neutralize” peaceful civil rights groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CORE, while the Army spied on and kept files on activists like Julian Bond and Walter Fauntroy.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to move forward, and organizations like BYP 100 and immigrant rights groups continue to challenge those in power, it’s instructive to recall that intelligence agencies have traditionally viewed non-white dissidents as especially threatening and worthy of their attention. (Indeed, journalists have revealed that these movements have been closely monitored by government authorities in recent years.)

Surveillance is a threat to a free press

Despite his recent championing of the free press, President Obama has been largely hostile to the role of journalism in today’s United States. He’s gone after leakers and whistleblowers like no one since Nixon, and even used the US security apparatus against members of the press. And now, the rise of Trump has got people wondering what press freedom would look like under the administration of a thin-skinned, paranoid, media-hating demagogue with all the powers of the modern surveillance state at his disposal.

The findings of the Church Committee give us some indication. According to the Committee’s final report, nearly 30 Americans were wiretapped by the FBI between 1960 and 1972 as part of an effort to discover the source of leaks of classified information, seven of which were journalists. Nixon was responsible for 17 of these wiretaps, after the New York Times published a report on the administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia. Nixon even had his own speechwriter wiretapped after he agreed to give a reporter background information about a speech on welfare reform.

It would be a mistake to think this behavior was limited to Nixon. Kennedy had a Newsweek reporter surveyed after he wrote an article the administration believed was based on classified intelligence, while Johnson’s attorney general had an anti-Communist newsletter’s editor wiretapped for the same offense.

The lesson is clear: When granted the ability to investigate leaks by surveying members of the press, those in power will invariably use it.

War and a sense of embattlement increases the likelihood of abuse

The findings of the Church Committee made clear that the surveillance apparatus set up by the United States, and the mentality that underpinned its abuse, could not have existed without the United States’ policy of endless war.

William C. Sullivan, former assistant to the FBI director, told the Committee regarding the FBI’s programs against domestic groups: “We have used [these techniques] against Soviet agents. … [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted.” As the report put it, “what works against one enemy will work against another.”

Sullivan explained that the agencies’ disregard of the law was an inheritance of the “war psychology” of the 1940s, when “lawfulness was not a question.” He elaborated:

Along came the Cold War. We pursued the same course in the Korean War, and the Cold War continued, then the Vietnam War. We never freed ourselves from that psychology that we were indoctrinated with, right after Pearl Harbor, you see.

As the old established order appeared to be crumbling at home, this created a volatile mixture. Although Americans view terrorism as one of the most pressing threats to their way of life today, the actual amount of terrorist attacks taking place in the United States today pales in comparison to the 1970s, when antiwar, religious and nationalist organizations carried out dozens of bombings and attacks on police.

Coupled with the growth of protest movements and their increasing radicalism, as well as a string of riots in 1970, and it’s clear that government officials began to see civilian populations as the enemy. “Certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans – mostly under 30 – are determined to destroy our society,” read a talking-paper produced for the president in 1970. FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley told the Committee that “situations have occurred in the past and will arise in the future when the government may well be expected to depart from its traditional role … and take affirmative steps which are needed to meet an imminent threat to human life or property.”

Such attitudes produced equally radical measures. The Army justified its illegal domestic surveillance program on the basis that “it needed such information in the late 1960s to enable it to prepare for situations in which it was called upon to put down civil disturbances.” As he discussed with Nixon the possibility of authorizing “surreptitious entry,” Tom Huston admitted it was “clearly illegal: it amounts to burglary,” but that “it is also the most fruitful tool.”

While the possibility of the collapse of social order today does not rival that of the 1970s, what’s more important is the perception. The US government has already put in place a sprawling national security state worth more than $1 trillion annually after one terrorist attack, while Islamophobia is on the rise thanks to constant warnings of terrorist infiltration and sleeper cells, putting ordinary Muslims in danger of being viewed as “the enemy.” As long as the “war on terror” continues, so will the potential for abuse.

When it comes to the lawlessness of the intelligence community that was uncovered by the Church Committee, there’s a temptation to view such matters as having happened once in the past and being impossible now. Yet the abuses we already know about – whether it’s the FBI’s entrapment of young Muslim men, the Obama administration’s surveillance of a Fox News reporter or NSA employees’ passing around of nude photos and spying on love interests – demonstrate that the Church Committee’s fears four decades ago are just as relevant now. Everyone is worried about Donald Trump becoming the next Hitler. Why aren’t we worried the intelligence community will go back to its old tricks?

Branko Marcetic is a regular contributor to In These Times. Reprinted from In These Times with permission of the author.