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Sun May 8, 2016, 01:46 AM

Why Activists Today Should Still Care About the 40-Year-Old Church Committee Report


Last week marked 40 years since the final report of the Church Committee was released to the public. You can read its report here. Set up in January 1975 in the wake of Watergate, and shortly after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed the CIA’s role in not only undermining foreign governments but in spying on U.S. citizens, the Committee spent 16 months trawling through classified and unclassified documents and grilling hundreds of counterintelligence officers, CIA directors, FBI higher-ups and other officials in order to shine a light on the scope of the intelligence community’s abuses over the previous decades.

The result was an unprecedented public spotlight on the shadowy world of American intelligence that forever altered the public’s perception of the United States’ various intelligence agencies. This was particularly so with the NSA, whose role and even existence was little-known among the public prior to the Committee’s revelations.

More important was what the Committee actually revealed. Its final report, released on April 26, 1976, detailed a stunningly broad scope of lawlessness and abuses by the intelligence world, which had, under successive presidents, turned its considerable powers increasingly on the American people themselves. Agencies like the CIA and FBI appeared to be acting as governments in themselves, flouting legal restraints as they ran programs that elected officials, even right up to the president, were kept in the dark about.

Most accounts of the Church Committee tend to focus on certain now-infamous programs that have become emblematic of agency abuses. There was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a program of covert action launched against the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, perceived to be home-grown threats to the social and political order. The program baldly attempted to disrupt and destroy social movements like the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society. It also hatched bizarre schemes like a plan proposed by the FBI to hit printing plants with a substance “duplicating a scent of the most foul smelling feces available.” According to the report, at least 18 percent of the program squarely targeted speakers, teachers, writers and meetings or peaceful demonstrations, as opposed to criminal activity.

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