The Church Commission

In 1975, the United States Senate established the Church Commission in order to investigate any potential abuses of power by certain intelligence agencies within the government. The Congressional panel was designated the Church Committee in commemoration of its leader, Senator Frank Church. It existed for a number of years and accumulated a large amount of data from its hearings before eventually publishing numerous documents that divulged their results.

Despite the Church Commission's attempts to shed light on illegal activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, their findings revealed a much darker and widespread reality than could have been anticipated. One of the most significant findings of the Church Commission was the extent to which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had engaged in illegal activities, including assassination plots and domestic surveillance. The committee unearthed data that demonstrated that the CIA had indeed tried to execute foreign rulers, including Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo under Director Allen Dulles. It also discovered the CIA was carrying out vast surveillance on American citizens, even that of prominent civil rights figures and those protesting against war.

In addition to the CIA, the Church Commission also investigated the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA). The committee discovered that the FBI had participated in numerous unlawful operations, including COINTELPRO, which sought out to target, disrupt, and discredit civil rights organizations and peaceful domestic anti-war activists. Generations before the Edward Snowden revelations, investigations uncovered how NSA had conducted extensive 

Senator Frank Church

surveillance on American citizens, including wiretapping and mail interception at a time when the agency was barely even acknowledged to even exist.

Some of the more notable and controversial findings of the Church Committee include:

  1. Assassination plots: The committee revealed that the CIA had conducted numerous plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba.

  2. COINTELPRO: The committee found that the FBI had conducted a secret and illegal counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) aimed at disrupting and neutralizing political organizations and individuals deemed to be a threat to national security.

  3. Surveillance of U.S. citizens: The committee found that the CIA, NSA, and FBI had conducted extensive surveillance of U.S. citizens, including political activists, civil rights leaders, and journalists.

  4. MK-Ultra: The committee revealed the existence of the CIA's MK-Ultra mind control program, which had experimented on unwitting U.S. citizens with drugs such as LSD.

Less notable findings:

  • The committee also revealed that the CIA had stockpiled poisons and other materials for use in assassination attempts.
  • The committee found that the CIA had conducted illegal domestic surveillance of anti-Vietnam War activists and other political dissidents.
  • The committee also revealed that the FBI had used illegal break-ins, wiretaps, and other methods to gather intelligence on U.S. citizens.

As a result of the Church Committee's findings, several reforms were made. Some of these include:

  1. The creation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to provide oversight of intelligence activities.

  2. The creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to provide oversight and regulations for the surveillance of U.S. citizens by intelligence agencies.

  3. The creation of Executive Order 12333 which established guidelines for the intelligence agencies to follow with regard to the collection, retention, and dissemination of information on U.S. citizens.

  4. The end of the CIA's power to conduct domestic surveillance and the prohibition of assassination by U.S. government agencies.

The Church Committee's findings and subsequent reforms were significant in that they exposed the extent of the intelligence agencies' abuses of power and led to a greater emphasis on oversight and accountability of these agencies.

One of the major recommendations of the Church Commission was the creation of new laws and oversight mechanisms to prevent future abuses of power by the intelligence agencies. As a result of the committee's findings, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, which established a system of judicial oversight for foreign intelligence gathering. The committee further urged the formation of the President's Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) to ensure proper oversight of all intelligence agencies.

In addition to its legislative recommendations, the Church Commission also issued a series of reports on its findings, which provided a detailed look at the activities of the intelligence agencies. These reports were widely read and had a significant impact on the public's understanding of the inner workings of the intelligence agencies.

Disregarding FISA

One of the earliest of alleged FISA abuses occurred in the early 2000s, when it was revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been conducting a program known as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," which involved warrantless wiretapping of telephone and internet communications of individuals suspected of terrorist ties. This program was revealed by The New York Times in 2005 and sparked widespread controversy and debate over the extent of the government's surveillance powers and the potential for abuse.

In 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, which granted the government new surveillance powers in the name of national security. This law was controversial because it included provisions that allowed the government to engage in "bulk collection" of telephone and internet communications, potentially affecting the privacy of millions of Americans.

In 2013, further controversy arose when it was revealed that the NSA had been collecting and storing the telephone records of millions of Americans under a program authorized by the FISA Amendments Act. This program, known as the "metadata program," was revealed by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, and sparked widespread concern about the extent of the government's surveillance activities.

In 2015, the USA Freedom Act was passed, which ended the NSA's metadata program and put in place new limits on the government's surveillance powers. However, the act has been criticized by some as insufficient to protect the privacy of Americans, and there have been calls for further reforms to FISA.

Overall, the United States government has faced accusations of breaking FISA laws or exceeding its authority under the act on several occasions, particularly in the areas of surveillance and collection of telephone and internet communications. These incidents have sparked significant controversy and debate over the appropriate balance between national security and privacy, and have led to reforms and changes to FISA in an effort to address concerns about government overreach.