Reader's View: ‘Watching the Watchers: Security vs. Liberty’

December 3, 2013 

In 1975-76, Sen. Frank Church chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate the national intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA and FBI.

During the Senate hearings, Church discovered that a letter he had written to his mother-in-law in Boise during an official trip to the Soviet Union had been opened by the CIA. In today’s intelligence world of the National Security Agency snooping on all manners of communication, this revelation seems almost quaint by comparison.

The Church committee revealed that the intelligence community had violated Americans’ rights of privacy and other civil liberties. While some Americans defended the actions of the intelligence agencies as necessary for national security, others sought to rein in these “rogue” agencies as violating the Constitution.

As Sen. Church said, “The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. ... Means are as important as ends. Crisis makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make men free; but each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, which makes us free, is lessened.”

Now 38 years later, some of the same excesses have been revealed to have been committed, this time to a far greater extent by the NSA including a “Watch List” with the names of two U.S. Senators: Frank Church and Howard Baker. In fact, it is nearly impossible to keep track of the flood of revelations about the NSA — whether sweeping up virtually all telephone conversations and Internet communications at home and abroad, or potentially monitoring every keystroke or GPS location around the world. Although the NSA has been singled out as the “big ear” in intelligence, little attention has been paid to the other intelligence agencies, such as the National Reconnaissance Office, known as the “big eye.”

The Church committee investigation produced 14 volumes on intelligence abuses ranging from the CIA’s assassination schemes, to the FBI’s harassment of civil rights leaders and the NSA’s watch-listing of thousands of Americans. The reforms recommended by the committee and enacted by Congress included the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court approval for eavesdropping on American soil; a presidential ban on political assassination; and the creation of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to oversee the intelligence agencies.

What were some of the lessons of the Church Committee investigation, and how are they relevant to current intelligence revelations? In the post-9/11 world, how does an open society reconcile the clash of freedom with a government’s desire for secrecy? Or, as Frank Church stated, how does America avoid crossing the “abyss from which there is no return?”

These are some of the issues that will be the focus of the 30th annual Frank Church Conference at Boise State University on Dec. 10 and 11. The conference, “Watching the Watchers: Security vs. Liberty,” will feature speakers from the National Security Agency, the Senate Intelligence Committee, a Fortune 500 defense contractor, and Columbia University. The sessions (except the luncheon and the dinner) are free and public, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 10 in the BSU Simplot Ballroom and at noon in the Hatch Ballroom. The conference keynote will be given by author and journalist Jonathan Alter, who will speak at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 in the Jordan Ballroom. Alter, a longtime Newsweek columnist and NBC News analyst, is the author of a new award-winning book, “The Center Holds.”

Please join us at this timely conference sponsored by the Frank Church Institute, the Idaho Statesman, Boise State Public Radio, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Idaho Council for History Education and the Idaho Council on Economic Education.

Garry V. Wenske is the executive director of The Frank Church Institute, Boise State University (

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