Power  /  Antecedent

The Senator Who Took On the CIA

Frank Church and the committee that investigated the US intelligence agencies.

It is hardly surprising that the White House wanted to discredit the Church Committee, for its revelations were perhaps the most embarrassing blow that Congress has ever inflicted on the executive branch. Most shocking were the committee’s disclosures of the CIA’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders. Not only had the agency tried to kill Castro in Cuba, but it had plotted to murder the democratically elected Patrice Lumumba in Congo. (Its assassins bungled the job, but the Belgians and Congolese, assuming they had the CIA’s blessing, carried it out.) The agency had also supplied weapons to the plotters who killed Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961, and it supported the coup that deposed and killed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem two years later. In 1970, the CIA supported the right-wing officers who shot and killed Gen. René Schneider, the commander in chief of the Chilean Army and a man who staunchly opposed proposals for the coup d’état that would eventually overthrow and kill the elected left-wing president, Salvador Allende.

The Church Committee’s discoveries led to other revelations. The disclosures about the vast amount of surveillance that the FBI and the CIA had performed on activists during the Vietnam War prompted many radicals to use the Freedom of Information Act to retrieve endless pages of such records about themselves, albeit with the names of informants blotted out. Others have used the act over the years to help pry out of a reluctant FBI ever more information about its obsession with Martin Luther King Jr. The Last Honest Man reminds us of some lesser-known details as well: For example, not only was the FBI intent on getting rid of King, preferably by suicide, but it had a replacement for him in mind as the presumptive leader of Black Americans. This was to be the Republican lawyer Samuel Pierce, who would later serve as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of housing and urban development.

Operating with a bipartisanship unimaginable today, the Church Committee fought back against both White House and CIA attempts to block the release of its findings. It issued a multivolume final report in 1976. Church made a short-lived run for the Democratic presidential nomination that same year, but former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter had it sewn up. The senator’s moment of glory was over, but he at least had the satisfaction of seeing Congress pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, which for the first time imposed some limits on the government’s ability to spy on American citizens. In 1980, Church lost his bid for reelection to the Senate. He died of cancer only a few years later, at the age of 59.