Time for a new Church Committee? Ex-staffers think so

Forty years after the creation of the landmark Senate committee to investigative abuses at U.S. spy agencies, ex-staffers on the Church Committee say it’s time for a similar panel to once again examine the nation's intelligence powers.

Seventeen former committee staffers released a report through the Brennan Center for Justice on Tuesday calling for Congress to conduct a “comprehensive evaluation” of American spying.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Congress needs to demonstrate its ability to check executive branch overreach across the multiple programs and agencies, re-establish democratic controls over intelligence policies and ensure public accountability of intelligence practices,” the former staffers wrote.

The declarations were blessed by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who both served on the landmark Senate panel in 1975 and 1976.

“Today, intelligence activities are back in the news, too often for the wrong reasons,” Mondale and Hart said in a foreword to the report.

The new analysis “could not be more critical or timely,” they added. “The scope and complexity of our intelligence operations has grown exponentially, and recent revelations about mass surveillance programs and the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody confirm that existing controls are not as effective as they need to be.”

In the mid-1970s, the Senate panel known as the Church Committee was formed in the wake of revelations about aggressive actions at the CIA. That panel, named for the late Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), led to the creation of the congressional Intelligence committees and is generally seen as a watershed moment in the creation of legal checks for the CIA and other spy agencies.

Recent revelations from Edward Snowden, friction between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over a scathing report of the agency’s former “enhanced interrogation techniques” and other tension surrounding the explosive growth of the nation’s intelligence powers since Sept. 11, 2001, have prompted the need for a similar exercise, the staffers wrote.

“Examining whether the controls and structures created four decades ago remain an effective bulwark against error and abuse is necessary and appropriate,” the ex-staffers asserted. “And the growing mistrust of U.S. intelligence activities at home and abroad make it essential.”

Using the Church Committee as a model, they urged Congress to exercise power over the executive branch, fight excessive secrecy and ensure that spy agencies have a strong oversight regime to check their effectiveness and prevent abuses.

The new report comes as the White House is preparing to issue a report on its progress in reforming its programs. That report is due out next month.

The odds of Congress following through with the former staffers’ advice are slim, however.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the new head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been criticized by civil liberties advocates for too aggressively shielding the CIA from public oversight, and the Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress don’t seem eager to disparage the intelligence community.