The Last Honest Man

The Last Honest Man

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen details the life and work of Frank Church - the man who forever changed the US Intelligence Community. From humble Idaho beginnings through to his lofty Presidential ambitions, we delve into who Church really was and his tireless devotion to serving American ideals of transparency and accountability - culminating in the Church Committee. However, Church learned that you can't shine a light on the darkest corners of the FBI, CIA, and NSA without making some powerful enemies.
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True Spies, Episode 203 - The Last Honest Man

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Rhiannon Neads and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.

JAMES RISEN: Before the Church Committee, the CIA thought pretty much, “We can get away with almost anything.” After the Church Committee, there were rules limiting their power in a way that had never been done before. And so it really changed the nature of the national security state.

NARRATOR: The last honest man, Senator Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, is sitting before a blue sound stage on Meet the Press, the American current affairs program. His hair is carefully parted and slicked back. He’s hunched over a microphone. And he’s warning the American public about the overreach of the nation’s intelligence agencies. We have a very extensive capability of intercepting messages wherever they may be in the airwaves,” Church said. “Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything.”

JAMES RISEN: I think Frank Church was the politician that we don't see anymore. He had flaws. He had many flaws but I think he had, at heart, had a deep sense of integrity and honesty.

NARRATOR: With his hair pomade and wide-lapeled suit, Church was unmistakably a man of the ‘70s. The transparency and the freedoms for which he worked so tirelessly, however, are causes that remain as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. 

JAMES RISEN: Every reporter spends their life writing about bad things and about bad people. One of the old sayings in newspapers is: “We don't write about all the planes that land safely,” which is very true. And so, as a result, sometimes we overlook people who do good things and we overlook people who are good at heart.

NARRATOR: The story of that man and all the good he did makes for an unusual sort of True Spies tale. In fact, a number of other episodes of this podcast feature covert operations that his Senate committee chose to investigate. And if you’re a regular listener who knows their MK-ULTRAs from their COINTELPROs, but who doesn’t yet know the name Frank Church, this week, we’ll correct that oversight with help from his biographer.

JAMES RISEN: My name is James Risen. I'm the author of The Last Honest Man and I'm also a reporter. That's pretty much it. 

NARRATOR: That’s not quite it. James Risen is a two-time Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative reporter who has covered the CIA since 1995. He received one of those Pulitzers in 2006 for a series of stories in The New York Times that revealed the secret domestic wiretapping program installed by George W. Bush’s administration - without court-approved warrants - after 9/11. Such a program had been unheard of in the US intelligence community, much of which considered the widespread spying on American soil a bridge too far. James left The Times in 2017 after years of frustration with the paper for deeply editing, or even withholding, intelligence stories, under pressure from the Bush and Obama White Houses. It was an experience that, however unpleasant, primed him for one of his next projects.

JAMES RISEN: I always had it, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to do a book about Church and the Church Committee.

NARRATOR: The Frank Church story begins in 1924 when the future senator was born to a conservative Catholic family in Boise, Idaho.

JAMES RISEN: He was widely considered the smartest kid in Boise. He became really famous in Boise as a teenager when he won the American Legion's National Oratory contest. It was probably the biggest debate competition in America at the time. He then served as an Army intelligence officer in China with the US Army in 1945.

NARRATOR: As an intelligence officer, Church had a window onto the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, a nationalist dictator with whom the US had formed a close alliance. His experience, James says, left him ‘disillusioned with American power’. 

JAMES RISEN: He had a unique experience where he saw the corruption and incompetence of Chiang Kai-shek's regime in China and began to question the role of the United States in the world in a way that very few Americans did at the time.

NARRATOR: After the war ended, Church parted ways with the army and started out on a new path.

JAMES RISEN: He went to law school and then developed cancer and he decided - after he had cancer - he decided he wanted to take risks. So he ran for Senate when he was only 32. He won and got into the Senate in 1956. And he was really a Cold War traditional Democrat.

NARRATOR: A ‘traditional Democrat’ in 1956 being a politician who is, as James puts it, liberal with a tinge of Cold War hawkishness. This was before the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Progressive American politics didn’t look the same then as it does today. But the political landscape shifted dramatically as American involvement in the Vietnam War, which began in 1955, stretched into the early 1960s. Frank Church got a glimpse of the long and deadly conflict firsthand.

JAMES RISEN: He went to Vietnam in 1962 for the first time as a Senator, and he saw that it was just like China under Chiang Kai-shek. It reminded him of the incompetence and corruption and the unwinnable war. And that whole process really radicalized him.

NARRATOR: Church’s awakening in Vietnam became the pivotal moment of his career.

JAMES RISEN: He turned against the war before almost anybody else in Congress and he became one of the leading critics of the war in the Senate. He became very frustrated that Congress was having so little impact on the war and finally decided to try to cut off all funding for military operations through a series of legislative actions called the Cooper-Church Amendment, which became famous at the time and synonymous with Congressional efforts to stop the war.

NARRATOR: The Cooper-Church Amendment was an early exercise of ‘the power of the purse’ in the American legislature - its ability to restrict military action by withholding funding. Under pressure from Congress, President Richard Nixon finally began to withdraw American troops from Vietnam. Church’s success as a reformer made him a household name. 

JAMES RISEN: That really made him a star in the Senate and in the media.

NARRATOR: Church’s stardom was noteworthy not only because of the sizable role he was able to play in the Senate, critical of the very institutions of which he was a part, but he was also able to gain traction with the voting public.

JAMES RISEN: He came to believe that the US was becoming a militaristic empire and that it had to be stopped. He compared it openly to the Soviet Union, which is remarkable for someone who's a politician from Idaho. One of the things that he continually came to believe was that there were these hidden forces in the American power structure that had to be stopped if we were going to maintain our democracy and maintain our ability to act as a force for good in the world.

NARRATOR: From his perch in the Senate, Church believed it was his role to curb the influence of those ‘hidden forces’.

JAMES RISEN: He focused first on the power of multinational corporations to undermine and influence US foreign policy, and then the role of the US intelligence community to sabotage US foreign policy. And he came to view those two things as part of a larger post-World War II power structure that had to be reined in.

NARRATOR: Despite all this, there was a contradiction in Church’s ambitions. On the one hand, he was a radical: someone who was deeply critical of American institutions and wanted to reform them from the inside out. On the other hand: he wanted to be president.

JAMES RISEN: And yet, he never resolved those two sides of himself, the side that was politically ambitious and the side that wanted to reform government and change and rein in the national security state. And so that was the central tension in his career.

NARRATOR: But in the first half of the 1970s, a perfect storm of events and revelations set the stage for the revolutionary figure Church fancied himself to be. 

JAMES RISEN: The Watergate break-in happened in 1972, and that led to the Watergate scandal. And in 1973, it led to hearings in Congress, mostly in the Senate by the Senate Watergate Committee. The role of the CIA in Watergate became a major issue for a while when it turned out that Richard Nixon had tried to use the CIA to quash the FBI's investigation of Watergate and of the Watergate cover-up.

NARRATOR: CIA director Ed Helms had refused to cover up the cover-up, but James says the Agency had provided support for the so-called White House ‘Plumbers’, who were tasked with stopping the leaks to the press. Leaks by the likes of the Pentagon Papers, a secret document by the US Department of Defense containing damning information about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. 

JAMES RISEN: So when Helms left and a new CIA director, James Schlesinger, came in, it began to come out that Helms had not been fully truthful about the CIA's role in Watergate, and that there was more to be learned about and more to be uncovered about the CIA's role with illegal operations.

NARRATOR: You can hear more on that story in the True Spies episode Howard Hunt Unleashed, Part 2: Project Gemstone. Suffice it to say, Schlesinger, wanting to get the lay of the land, ordered a report of all the CIA’s illegal activities, compiled into a single document called The Family Jewels.

JAMES RISEN: And that document remained highly classified and not seen by anybody outside the Agency until Sy Hersh began to investigate the illegal activities at the CIA.

NARRATOR: ‘Sy Hersh’ being Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter who had exposed the mass murder of several hundred Vietnamese civilians by American troops in My Lai.

JAMES RISEN: He was just beginning to set up a presidential campaign when, in December 1974, Sy Hersh wrote a major story in The New York Times revealing the existence of domestic spying by the CIA on Americans.

NARRATOR: On December 22, 1974, the headline on the front page of The New York Times broke the news of a huge CIA operation against the anti-war movement. Hersh reported that the intelligence Agency had been illegally spying on American citizens on a massive scale. Over the course of the months that followed, Hersh produced subsequent reports that revealed the vast extent of the Agency’s operations. 

JAMES RISEN: And that story really sparked a firestorm in the country and led in Congress calls for the creation of an investigation of the CIA.

NARRATOR: The Senate Watergate Committee had investigated, and ultimately indicted, dozens of Nixon administration officials, less than two years prior. But up until that point, the CIA had been allowed to operate as it wished, its powers essentially unchecked.

JAMES RISEN: There had never been any investigation of the CIA prior to the Church Committee. There had never been any oversight. The Congressional intelligence committees that exist today did not exist then. There was no oversight of the FBI or the CIA or the NSA or anything. There were no laws governing their operations except extremely vague legislative charters. And so Congress had, for the first 30 years of the CIA's existence, not really wanted to investigate anything that the CIA was doing. They didn’t want to know.

NARRATOR: In the wake of Seymour Hersh’s reporting for The Times, Mike Mansfield, a Democratic Senator from Montana, led the charge for a Congressional committee to investigate the CIA.

JAMES RISEN: He chose, as the chairman, Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, who was widely liked and trusted. But Hart told him, “I've got cancer. I'm dying. I can't do it.” And then he said, “Well, you should try Church. Church wants to do it, and I think he'd be good at it.”

NARRATOR: Church had hardly been shy about the fact that he wanted to run for president. His aides and advisors warned him not to take on the committee if he planned to campaign for the 1976 election but Church could not be dissuaded.

JAMES RISEN: He went to Mansfield and said, “I want to do this.” And Mansfield said, “Well, this will cost you the presidency. How can you run? You can't run for president while you're chairing the committee.” And Church said, “Don't worry, I won't run for president while we're conducting the investigation.” And Mansfield came away from that conversation thinking that Church was not going to run for president in 1976. Church came away from the conversation thinking, “I'm not going to run until we finish this investigation.”

NARRATOR: Mansfield would turn out to be right. Church couldn’t have it both ways. And for the time being, the Senator from Idaho sidelined his presidential aspirations.

JAMES RISEN: He put the presidential campaign on the back burner and told his advisors, “I'm not going to do anything until after this investigation is over.” And so, in January 1975, the Church Committee was created and Frank Church was named to be chairman.

NARRATOR: But remember, this was virgin territory for the Senate. The CIA had at that point been operating for 30 years. That gave Church and his colleagues plenty to sink their teeth into.

JAMES RISEN: What do we investigate first? What do we look at, and how do we focus this committee and its investigation? The committee was split between the staff director, a man named Bill Miller, who was really just a mild-mannered foreign policy nerd, and the chief counsel, Fritz Schwartz, who was a hard-charging New York litigator who had been recruited to come to be the counsel of the Church Committee. And when Miller and Schwartz confronted each other, they realized they had completely different views of what the committee should do.

NARRATOR: These two men presented two entirely different approaches for the Senate investigation. Miller proposed a non-confrontational style of hearing that would end with the Senate issuing recommendations for CIA reforms. Schwartz, on the other hand, had served on the Watergate Committee, and he envisioned something closer to that - public, aggressive, and no-holds-barred. He accused Miller of being disinterested in getting the ‘dirty facts’. 

JAMES RISEN: And they were really at loggerheads because Miller had already hired half the staff and Schwartz was hiring the other half. And so there were two warring camps on the Church Committee.

NARRATOR: Miller’s approach was more likely to bring the investigation to a close swiftly, allowing Church to begin his presidential campaign sooner. But, like Schwartz, Church wanted the investigation to attract public attention. Under the limelight, the CIA would be under greater pressure to reform. 

JAMES RISEN: It was really interesting how close they came to running a very tepid, very forgettable series of hearings that would have led no one to remember the Church Committee today.

NARRATOR: In the end, Church favored Schwartz’s strategy to air all of the CIA’s dirty laundry. The Church Committee was destined to create drama in Washington. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Church Committee faced resistance from the White House. What might surprise you are the familiar names behind that resistance.

JAMES RISEN: In early 1975, Dick Cheney was deputy White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, and the chief of staff was Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld and Cheney tried to convince Ford to try to block or fight back against congressional investigations of the CIA.

NARRATOR: James says Cheney wanted Ford to bar access to government documents by saying that Church lacked the executive privilege to view them. 

JAMES RISEN: But Gerald Ford had become president because of Watergate, and one of the key moments that led to Nixon's resignation was the Supreme Court decision that said that Nixon had to turn over the White House tapes that revealed the Watergate cover-up. That had just happened a few months earlier, and he didn't want to have another constitutional crisis with Congress over access to documents so soon after it had led to Nixon's resignation. And so Cheney kept fighting against the Church Committee, even as Gerald Ford began to just ignore him. 

NARRATOR: According to James, that led Cheney to resent Church - a resentment that would linger for many years to come. But the Church Committee was free to go ahead - and they had their work cut out for them because, as they began to investigate, the committee determined that they wouldn’t stop with the CIA. All of the nation’s major intelligence agencies would come under the microscope.

NARRATOR: The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities - informally known as the Church Committee - was officially created in the final days of January 1975. Shortly thereafter, it got to work investigating decades of abuses of power and hushed-up scandals. We can’t cover all of the committee’s findings here. We’d be here for days. But here’s what you need to know.

JAMES RISEN: There were really, I would say, three landmark investigations by the Church Committee. There was the investigation of the CIA's alliance with the Mafia to try to kill Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, and other plots to assassinate foreign leaders. Then there was the FBI's harassment of Martin Luther King and efforts to discredit him. And then the investigation of the National Security Agency, which no one had ever investigated.

NARRATOR: The CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. All three major agencies, the committee learned, had committed unlawful, sometimes violent acts against people they perceived as threats or potential threats. Let’s take those agencies one by one beginning with the CIA.

JAMES RISEN: The first major investigation of the committee was their efforts to get to the bottom of CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders. And that focused primarily on, what they found was a CIA alliance with the Mafia that had started in 1960, the end of the Eisenhower administration, and then early in the Kennedy administration, to use the Mafia to try to kill Fidel Castro.

NARRATOR: The plot to kill Castro, of course, hadn’t worked out as planned. Nevertheless, the details the Church Committee uncovered about the way the Agency had attempted to carry out the murder did not look good in the light of day when the committee revealed them in a series of closed Senate hearings.

JAMES RISEN: They contacted an FBI agent who was on contract to the CIA and asked him if he knew any mafia gangsters, and he said yes. And so he flew out to Los Angeles to meet with a guy named Johnny Roselli, who was one of the most flamboyant mobsters in America at the time. Roselli agreed to get involved, and then he recruited Sam Giancana, who was the mob boss of Chicago, to get involved. And then they also got Santo Trafficante, who was the mob boss of Tampa and who had a lot of contacts in Cuba.

NARRATOR: But in a series of mishaps and mishandlings, the mobsters left a damning trail of suspicious evidence in their wake. That gave the FBI cause for suspicion, and soon the Bureau began to investigate. The plot came to a halt when the matter reached the FBI director himself.

JAMES RISEN: J. Edgar Hoover found out about this plot between the CIA and the mafia and they soon found that Sam Giancana's mistress, Judith Campbell, was not only sleeping with him but was also sleeping with President Kennedy.

NARRATOR: J. Edgar Hoover was not known to tread lightly. He saw blackmail potential in Judith Campbell and he put it to immediate use.

JAMES RISEN: Hoover took it to the White House and confronted Kennedy in 1962 over this squalid series of facts, and shortly thereafter, Kennedy approved Hoover's request to wiretap Martin Luther King.

NARRATOR: Which brings us to the committee's second major finding - one of the most sobering abuses of power it would uncover over the course of its work.

JAMES RISEN: The investigation by the Church Committee really dug into the history of how the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover in particular had become obsessed with the rise of Martin Luther King, the rise of the civil rights movement. And how Hoover personally, who was deeply racist, had come to believe that Martin Luther King was a communist puppet, that he was being controlled by Moscow, and that the entire civil rights movement was basically a communist front. 

NARRATOR: Hoover, James says, had pushed his agents to come up with evidence that supported his claims. Of course, none of them could produce anything legitimate.

JAMES RISEN: He kept telling them, “You're wrong. I'm the one who told you that Castro was going to be communist and you didn't listen to me.” So all of his agents complied and just kept looking for communist influence. And when they started wiretapping all of his hotel rooms and everywhere he was, they found - instead of communist influence - they found that he was having extramarital affairs.

NARRATOR: It was enough for them to work with. They could use King’s private life against him. But still, they went further.

JAMES RISEN: One of the most famous incidents uncovered by the Church Committee was when they found that the FBI had anonymously sent wiretap recordings to King with an anonymous note. ["There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days.”] And the 34 days really was a reference to the fact that he was going to be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and that the message clearly meant, ‘We want you to kill yourself before you get the Nobel Peace Prize because we will release all this damaging information about you.’ It was a concerted effort by the FBI for years to try to destroy the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. And it had never really come out prior to the Church Committee.

NARRATOR: As the committee unearthed detail after unsavory detail, it had to decide not just which reforms to push for in Congress, but what information to share with the public. Remember, despite knowing that it could endanger his chances of becoming president, Church had resolved that the best way to make sure necessary changes were made was by getting all those ‘dirty facts’ out in the open. Church had kept the committee hearings on the CIA’s plots to assassinate foreign leaders closed from the press and public. That was a strategic choice.

JAMES RISEN: His ambition led a lot of people in the Senate to think that they couldn't trust him. He was also a publicity hound, and that led a lot of people to think that the only reason he was doing things was to gain publicity and headlines, when in fact, he really, truly believed that the government needed fundamental reform.

NARRATOR: But once he had proven that he could conduct his hearings away from the public eye, Church was keen to get the revelations to the public. By September, the committee had compiled a report for the public on the CIA’s plots to assassinate foreign leaders - and it went well beyond Cuba.

JAMES RISEN: It looked into the assassination attempts against Castro as well as against other foreign leaders like [Ngo Dinh] Diem in South Vietnam, [Patrice] Lumumba in Congo, and General René Schneider in Chile. And it came out months before the rest of the investigations were completed. Mansfield arranged for the Senate to vote on whether to make it public. But then the vote - it looked like it was going to be close - they pulled it off the Senate floor and just immediately released it to the public.

NARRATOR: The Committee’s shocking revelations soon led to the implementation of Executive Order 11905, signed into law by President Gerald Ford, banning the assassination of political leaders. But the plot to kill Castro and the threats against Martin Luther King Jr. were just two instances among numerous abuses of power, some of which the committee was able to investigate, some of which it simply did not have the resources to spend time on. But although individual incidents would remain untouched, as the months passed, Church Committee members came to recognize the need to widen the scope of their work. And they would do so in their first public hearings beginning in September 1975.

JAMES RISEN: When the Church Committee began to expand their investigation beyond just the CIA and to look at the FBI they realized they also should look at the NSA. And a handful of their staffers began to try to find out information about the NSA. And one staffer kept going back out to Fort Meade, the NSA's headquarters, to get information. And he kept getting blocked. And finally, one staffer just told him, “Well, why don't you go talk to Dr. Tordella?”

NARRATOR: Louis Tordella had worked for the NSA from its founding and had been its deputy director for 16 years. He’d retired just a few months before the committee staffer approached him, looking for insight. 

JAMES RISEN: He knew everything about the NSA. He knew where all the bodies were buried. Military officers would come and go as the director; he was the civilian who was always there behind the scenes.

NARRATOR: Tordella was slow to warm up to the staffer who met with him at Tordella’s Washington home. But eventually, he started to talk.

JAMES RISEN: The NSA had been founded in 1952, and in the years since it had been founded, by 1975, no one in Congress had ever done any investigation or any oversight ever of the NSA. And it had grown dramatically to this massive codebreaking and code-making Agency.

NARRATOR: One of the most notable transgressions the NSA had committed began way back in the final days of the Second World War, when the NSA’s predecessor, the Armed Forces Security Agency, began to intercept international telegrams. This may seem like garden-variety surveillance today, in a post-Edward Snowden era. But the fact that Project Shamrock, the massive communications intercept program, ran unchecked for three decades after the end of the war was shocking at the time. It wasn’t until the Church Committee began its investigation in 1975 that the program was finally terminated.

JAMES RISEN: Finally, Church pushed for public hearings on the NSA, which many members of the Church Committee didn't want to do. They thought it was too secret. It shouldn't be made public at all. But Church pushed for not only public hearings but also a public report that named the telecommunications companies that had cooperated secretly for years to turn over American communications data to the NSA without any legal authority.

NARRATOR: NSA Director Lew Allen testified before the committee, and James says he received plaudits for his appearance, the first of its kind for an NSA director. Allen acknowledged the existence of Project Minaret, in which the NSA spied on Americans on a ‘watch list’ of activists, journalists, entertainers, and other people deemed suspicious. What Allen didn’t admit was that one of those Americans was Frank Church himself. That didn’t come out until 2013. Nevertheless, it was thanks to the Church Committee that Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which requires intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials to secure authorization from a federal court before conducting surveillance. But it wasn’t just the NSA that had to change. 

JAMES RISEN: Before the Church Committee, the CIA thought pretty much “We can get away with almost anything.” After the Church Committee, there were rules limiting their power in a way that had never been done before. And so it really changed the nature of the national security state. There were a number of laws like FISA that were passed as a result of the Church Committee's work that led to reforms and new restrictions and limitations on the power of the Intelligence Community. A lot of executive orders and administrative changes. And I think you can credit Frank Church and the Church Committee for changing the nature of the Intelligence Community and making it something that was to operate under the law and under the rule of law.

NARRATOR: Remember Church’s ‘hidden forces’ in American power that he believed needed to be reined in? 

JAMES RISEN: Prior to the Church Committee, Church worried that the national security state, the Intelligence Community, was becoming a rogue actor in the national government and that it was one of the key influences leading us to a series of endless wars. After the Church Committee and after the reforms, the idea that the national security state could get away with anything was no longer true.

NARRATOR: A major ambition for the Idaho Senator, accomplished. And now, with the committee investigations behind him, Frank Church moved on to the next item on his ‘To Do’ list. Run for president. But he was cutting it pretty close.

JAMES RISEN: What happened was, he continued the Church Committee investigation throughout 1975. Then in the winter of 1975 into early 1976, they worked on the final reports of the Church Committee and the final hearings. And so, he didn't announce his campaign that he was running until March 1976.

NARRATOR: That didn’t leave much time for Church to curry favor with voters before the election in November. Besides, the Democrats already had a clear favorite: the governor of Georgia - until recently, a relative unknown on the national stage - called Jimmy Carter.

JAMES RISEN: Church came up with this Rube Goldberg strategy of how he could try to catch Carter, but it involved winning the California primary. But right before Church announced for president, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, got into the race, and that made it almost impossible for Church to try to win California, which was the key of his campaign strategy. And so, I think by the time he got into the race, he knew he wasn't going to win.

NARRATOR: Church served in the Senate until 1981. A few years later, he was hospitalized with pancreatic cancer. He succumbed to his illness in 1984 at the age of 59. James Risen has been writing about American politics and security for some three decades. When he began reporting on the CIA, in the mid-’90s, Frank Church and his investigative committee had already become relics of history but James felt their presence acutely.

JAMES RISEN: One of the reasons I wrote about him and the Church Committee was when I was covering the CIA, everyone at the CIA would, when you ask them why they did things the way they did, they would say, “Well, this is the way we've done it since the Church Committee.” And then if you say, “Well, why don't you do it this way?” And [they] say, “Well, we used to do it that way, but we can't anymore because of the Church Committee.” And so, I realized the Church Committee was like the watershed in the history of the Intelligence Community.

NARRATOR: In 2001, Church’s name returned to the lips of White House executives. Remember how Dick Cheney, then-deputy chief of staff to Gerald Ford, had tried to block Church’s access to documents that might incriminate the White House? Well, Cheney was now vice president, and although a quarter of a century had passed, James says that his resentment toward Church remained.

JAMES RISEN: Cheney kept that anger all the way to 9/11. And I think that the fact that he had lost those bureaucratic battles really led him to lash out against the Church Committee after 9/11 and claim that they were responsible for 9/11.

NARRATOR: In an interview on the American political program Meet the Press, five days after 9/11, Cheney spoke about the need “to make certain that we have not tied the hands, if you will, of our Intelligence Communities in terms of accomplishing their mission.” According to James, it was just another instance of Cheney’s long-running fight against Frank Church. Cheney later took credit for creating a wiretapping program, implemented shortly after 9/11, that violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - the same program James revealed to the world in The New York Times. About the decision to install the new domestic spying program, Cheney writes in his memoir: “We were at war and the program's single purpose was to get intelligence necessary for the defense of the nation.”

JAMES RISEN: There are still deep flaws in the Intelligence Community. They violated the rules and the laws put in place after the Church Committee many times. There have been many scandals. And we actually need to update the reforms and the laws put in place by the Church Committee. But it was a historic effort to actually, for the very first time, rein in the power of the Intelligence Community. And that has made a historic difference in American national security and American foreign policy, and I think in American democracy.

NARRATOR: Even if Church was, as James calls him, ‘The Last Honest Man’ in today’s Washington, his reformist spirit lives on.

JAMES RISEN: One legacy of the Church Committee today is that whenever there's a new Congressional investigation, Congressional scandal, people say, “We need a new Church Committee.” And it's become part of the political lexicon in America. The Church Committee is a synonym for a powerful, aggressive investigation to uncover the truth. And that's quite a legacy.

NARRATOR: Learn more about Senator Frank Church in James Risen’s book The Last Honest Man. I’m Rhiannon Neads. Next time: meet the 18th-century French spy who received Louis XVI’s blessing to choose their gender identity. Only on True Spies.

Guest Bio

Former New York Times journalist James Risen is a two-time Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative reporter who has covered the CIA since 1995. He is also the author of The Last Honest Man.

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