The former chief counsel for the Church Committee, Frederick A.O “Fritz” Schwarz Jr., is pushing for a new committee that would investigate secret government, particularly actions by government since the September 11th attacks.
He is currently chief counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and the winner of the 2014 Ridenhour Courage Prize, which is an award given to individuals to recognize their lifelong courageous work defending the public interest.
The Church Committee played an instrumental role in the 1970s in calling attention to abuses by the national security state. The Senate established a committee chaired by Senator Frank Church of Idaho to examine the conduct and operations of intelligence agencies.
As Betty Medsger highlights in her book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, a string of revelations created a need for an investigation. Files taken from the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, exposed COINTELPRO. Journalist Seymour Hersh’s reporting uncovered domestic surveillance operations by the CIA.
Schwarz found the FBI abuses had “undermined American democracy, violated the law and subverted the Constitution.” Domestic intelligence had been quite pervasive, and this reality was “reflected in the sheer volume of Americans spied upon. The FBI opened more than 500,000 domestic intelligence files, each typically including several individuals’ names.”
The Media burglary by activists, whose identities are now known forty-three years later, was the main catalyst for an effort that led to the end of COINTELPRO. Operations included, as Medsger described in her book, injecting antiwar activists’ oranges with laxatives, hiring prostitutes with venereal diseases to infect campus antiwar leaders or entrap the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or “destroying specific individuals and institutions.” For example, an “apartment diagram” guided a Chicago police officer who murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton. The FBI also taunted Martin Luther King Jr., trying to convince him to commit suicide.
Now, today, there is renewed interest in the conduct of intelligence agencies. Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed mass surveillance, which appears to be unchecked if not also unconstitutional in many respects.
Snowden revealed the collects the phone records of millions of consumers, has a PRISM program that gives the agency direct access to Internet companies to collect users’ data, has a “Boundless Informant” program capable of tracking global surveillance data and collecting billions of pieces of intelligence on US citizens, how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allows US persons’ data to be used without a warrant, how the NSA and GCHQ are tapping into fiber optic cables of Internet companies to intercept traffic, how the NSA harvests users’ metadata, how the NSA is working to undermine encryption and infect millions of computers of with malware.
The CIA is also receiving attention for conducting “unauthorized searches” of computers used by Senate staffers, who were working on a report on the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. It was kidnapping terrorism suspects and sending them to “black site” prisons and destroyed videotapes of interrogations.
There is a need for another broad investigation. Schwarz believes it is necessary to examine the “legality of mass surveillance activities carried out by federal agencies.”
He recalled how the Church Committee had “looked at a very, very broad scope.” It looked at a whole period from President Franklin D. Roosevelt through President Richard Nixon.
“We concluded that each of the six presidents in that period abused their secret powers. We looked at all of the intelligence agencies. We looked at what the Congress itself had been doing. And a new investigation should do the same thing,” Schwarz said.
It could examine the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The hope would be that findings could be issued that would convince the intelligence community and the public of how there needed to be certain changes made in government.
Schwarz may regret the fact that Obama did not favor an investigation into secret government activities in 2009, when he became president, but he stated the benefit of an investigation now is that it may not break down as a result of partisan politics. There are two administrations that can be investigated, which had presidents from both political parties.
An investigation could address the significant problem of secrecy. It could recommend constraints for technology, which has changed so much since when he worked with the Church Committee.
“The technology the government now has to surveill is infinitely more powerful than it was in 1975 when we did our land-breaking work,” Schwarz said.
To be clear, this would not be about prosecutions. A new committee would be interested in illegality or wrongdoing, but enforcing criminal law would be up to other people, who have it as their job to conduct criminal investigations.
Schwartz adamantly described how he believed in the 1970s that the Church Committee was not a prosecutor, a grand jury or a court. It’s job was to bring out facts. Any new committee should not have it as their goal to reveal information on individuals for the sole purpose of prosecutions.
That is not say that people did not harm the United States, but it is Schwarz’s opinion that it will not work to have prosecutions. They will never happen. “It’s a side issue. The important thing is,” to investigate “what happened and what can be done” to prevent those things from happening in government again.
Address the culture of secrecy in government. Dealing with impunity can come in the form of transparency, from no longer allowing officials involved in misconduct to enjoy having the roles they played concealed.
“Everybody spends a lot of time talking about the classification system. Well, that’s important. But it’s a manifestation of the problem,” Schwarz argued. “The problem is in the culture that has developed of it being better to be secret than be open.”
Then, there’s also the “lure of secrecy.” Secrecy is “simpler. It avoids problems.”
Finally, when asked how this period of corruption compares to the period of corruption back in the 1970s, Schwarz said the problems are similar.
“I know when I was doing my work in the mid-70s I was focusing on the importance of exposing particular secrets because I strongly believed that we would never get reform unless the Church Committee had aggressive hearings and reports that exposed secrets.”
“I didn’t then think much about the underlying culture secrecy. Since then, I’ve thought more about that.”
This reflects a developed understanding that secret government does not just come from secret programs or operations that are kept secret but also from the manner in which officials believe they can govern in Washington without having the public know what exactly it is they are doing behind closed doors. There is an extensive amount of conduct that goes on irrespective of protecting “national security” and citizens remain in the dark about what it is that they are conspiring or planning for the nation.
Limits and mechanisms should obviously be put in place to make it harder for them to commit the kinds of abuses and wrongdoing, which they will work so tirelessly to cover up. But, for any such development to happen, a committee with congressional and institutional backing will have to do the work of studying the issues and proposing remedies.
“The release of public information adds to accountability,” Schwarz contended. “The worst thing is people can do things and nobody knows about it.” Transparency can make those people “pay a price in reputation” and create that opening where agencies are obligated to reform themselves.
To a small extent, this process has begun as a result of Snowden’s disclosures. Pressure to change has been felt within the NSA, even though management remains very resistant. But the corruption in the system is not limited to the NSA and runs deep within other agencies.
Powerful interests will fight a new Church Committee but a committee with the power and authority to reveal truths definitely could be hugely beneficial to citizens worried about the dangerous powers accumulating in government that could result in the loss of what freedoms they have in this democratic republic.