In 1973, CIA Director James Schlesinger told Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis that he wished to brief him on a major upcoming operation. “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis. “Don’t tell me. Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.” Similarly, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J.W. Fulbright was told of the CIA subversion of the Allende government in Chile, he responded, “I don’t approve of intervention in other people’s elections, but it has been a long-continued practice.”
Late in 1974, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that the CIA was not only destabilizing foreign governments, but was also conducting illegal intelligence operations against thousands of American citizens.
On January 27, 1975, an aroused Senate voted overwhelmingly to establish a special 11-member investigating body along the lines of the recently concluded Watergate Committee. Under the chairmanship of Idaho Senator Frank Church, with Texas Senator John Tower as vice-chairman, the select committee was given nine months and 150 staffers to complete its work.
The so-called Church Committee ran into immediate resistance from the Ford administration, concerned about exposing American intelligence operations and suspicious of Church’s budding presidential ambitions.
The committee interviewed 800 individuals, and conducted 250 executive and 21 public hearings. At the first televised hearing, staged in the Senate Caucus Room, Chairman Church dramatically displayed a CIA poison dart gun to highlight the committee’s discovery that the CIA directly violated a presidential order by maintaining stocks of shellfish toxin sufficient to kill thousands.
Lacking focus and necessarily conducting much of its work behind closed doors, the panel soon lost any hope of becoming a second Watergate Committee. Critics, from Bing Crosby to Paul Harvey, accused it of treasonous activity. The December 1975 assassination of a CIA station chief in Greece intensified the public backlash against its mission.
The panel issued its two-foot-thick final report in May 1976 without the support of influential Republican members John Tower and Barry Goldwater. Despite its shortcomings, the inquiry demonstrated the need for perpetual surveillance of the intelligence community and resulted in the creation of the permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Historian Henry Steele Commager assessed the Committee’s legacy. Referring to executive branch officials who seemed to consider themselves above the law, he said, “It is this indifference to constitutional restraints that is perhaps the most threatening of all the evidence that emerges from the findings of the Church Committee.”