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Following the withdrawal from the war in Vietnam and the ensuing Watergate Scandal, the American people’s confidence in their own government suddenly plummeted. In December of 1974, the New York Times had accused the CIA of spying on Americans at home. Following the accusation, Congressional offices began to receive thousands of letters from worried citizens expressing their concerns on how events such as the Watergate Scandal may only be a prelude for future acts that oppose democracy and infringe on their rights.
Feeling that United States intelligence agencies were responsible for the turmoil throughout the country, Senator John Pastore proposed that all US intelligence agencies be investigated for cases of intelligence abuse. With overwhelming support from the rest of the senators, an investigation was subsequently carried out January 21, 1975. The White House followed suit and had also launched their own investigation under the direct supervision of President Gerald R. Ford.
In order to lead the investigation into the activities of the intelligence agencies, the Senate had created an investigative panel known formally as the Special Select Committee to Investigate Intelligence Activities. This panel is more commonly known as the Church Committee, named after its chairman, Senator Frank Church. Eleven members of the committee were drawn into the committee due to the notion of the possibility of domestic spying. Church himself became involved through his interest in the New York Times’ accusation of CIA affairs overseas.
Many cases of intelligence abuse began to surface following the committee’s investigation. According to committee reports, the FBI had been illegally keeping data banks on U. S. citizens including government officials. However, it became apparent that these occasional findings of intelligence “improprieties” were not enough to garner the support of the majority of Congress. This lack of support had inadvertently halted any efforts towards reform in the intelligence communities. In addition to the lack of support, the Church Committee had essentially been stonewalled in its investigations as document request had been repeatedly delayed or outright denied. At the same time, the entirety of Congress had expected the Church Committee to investigate over twenty-five years word of supposed intelligence abuses.
In the summer of 1975, the Church Committee had discovered documents which would allow them to finally present a significant case to Congress. The documents analyzed by the Church Committee revealed that a spy plan, developed by White House Aide Tom Huston, was to be carried out prior to Nixon’s resignation. The plan had called for intelligence agencies to spy on anti-war protestors enough to be considered radical and subsequently detained. Included in the document were plans to commit domestic burglaries, use illegal electronic surveillance methods, and even reviewing the mail of these anti-war protestors. It was revealed during the congressional hearing concerning the Huston Plan that these documents were signed off by Director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms, and FBI director, John Hoover, confirming that certain intelligence agencies had the intent to abuse intelligence resources and to infringe on the rights of citizens. The exposure of the Huston Plan was the first of many cases in which intelligence agencies had committed intelligence abuse. The committee’s investigation had snowballed, eventually revealing the numerous activities that had occurred without Congressional knowledge such as Project SHAMROCK, where from 1945 until 1975, all telegraphic and electronic communication data entering or exiting the United States was collected and eventually analyzed by the Nation Security Agency (NSA). The project allowed the NSA to monitor “watchlisted” individuals without a warrant, heavily infringing on their 4th Amendment rights. The project was shut down due as a result of Church Committee revelations.
The investigations by the Church Committee had made waves within Congress and eventually within the U. S. intelligence community. The numerous acts of intelligence abuse and infringement of rights committed by various intelligence agencies had opened many eyes within the government. The Church Committee had now made it clear that even in the classified world that is the U. S. Intelligence Community, that there had to be some modicum of accountability and oversight. Congress went on to establish dedicated oversight committees that would soon replace all evidently ineffective subcommittees. After securing a leash on their intelligence agencies, Congress had begun to restore public confidence in the government. Intelligence agencies were then made critically aware of their limits and responsibilities and that a misstep or a stray away from statute would bring upon the scrutiny of the aforementioned oversight committees.
In the end, the insistence of Congress to immerse themselves with intelligence activities, in addition to the now cautious intelligence community had created a greater level of professionalism as well as reinforcing both parties’ commitment to the upholding of the constitutional rights of the American people. The efforts of the Church Committee had inadvertently secured the future of American intelligence and established a new sense of determination to preserve liberty at home and abroad.
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