January 27, 1975
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, a concerned 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 twelve months (later extended to sixteen) and hired 150 staff to complete its work.
Early that year, Church and Tower met with President Gerald Ford and his top national security advisors, securing a pledge of cooperation from the administration. The committee proved itself to be both responsible and cautious with sensitive materials, combing through more than 100,000 classified and unclassified documents to piece together a complicated history of past intelligence abuses. Conducting much of its work behind closed doors, the panel interviewed 800 individuals including former CIA directors, FBI officials, and counterintelligence officers and agents, and conducted 250 executive and 21 public hearings.
To educate the public about the misdeeds of national intelligence agencies, the committee held televised hearings in the Senate Caucus Room. After gaveling to order the first hearing, 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. Critics saw this as evidence that the committee’s work was a vehicle for Senator’s Church presidential ambitions.
Despite this criticism, the committee released its carefully documented final report in April 1976, concluding that Congress should and must provide consistent and ongoing surveillance of the intelligence community. Congress responded by creating permanent intelligence oversight committees in the Senate and House.
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."