We Need a New Church Committee

The Church Committee was a post-Watergate congressional committee that investigated allegations of lawbreaking by the executive branch, including the CIA and FBI. The committee’s report was incredibly important in helping the public understand the depth and breadth of Cold War lawlessness during the previous three decades. When Cato asked me to pen the chapter on electronic surveillance in this year’s edition of the Cato Handbook on Policy, I included a recommendation that Congress should launch a modern-day successor to the Church Committee.

In the last few months, I’ve been pleased to see that people smarter than me have been having the same idea. The latest is the Nation’s Chris Hayes, who has a great cover story calling on Congress to launch a wide-ranging investigation of executive branch lawbreaking.

We have lots of evidence that members of the Bush administration broke laws related to torture, wiretapping, and the Patriot Act. But because these reports are based on press reports and heavily-redacted Freedom of Information Act requests, we don’t know the full nature and extent of these crimes. Given that Barack Obama has fallen short of the transparency pledges he made during the campaign, Congress is likely the only institution in the United States with the resources and the political clout to produce a complete accounting of the civil liberties abuses of the last three decades.

I think the most important point Chris makes is this one:

Since the committee began in the wake of Nixon’s resignation and revelations about his deceptions, abuses and sociopathic pursuit of grudges, Church and many Democrats had every reason to believe they would be chiefly unmasking the full depths of Nixon’s perfidy. Quickly, however, it became clear that Nixon was a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Kennedy and Johnson had, with J. Edgar Hoover, put in place many of the illegal policies and programs. Secret documents obtained by the committee even revealed that the sainted FDR had ordered IRS audits of his political enemies. Republicans on the committee, then, had as much incentive to dig up the truth as did their Democratic counterparts.

As historian Kathy Olmsted argues in her book Challenging the Secret Government, Church was never quite able to part with this conception of good Democrats/bad Republicans. Confronted with misdeeds under Kennedy and Johnson, he chose to view the CIA as a rogue agency, as opposed to one executing the president’s wishes. This characterization became the fulcrum of debate within the committee. At one point Church referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant,” causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn’t the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: “the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies,” he said during a committee hearing, “is, above all, a grant of power to the president.”

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale’s approach and not Church’s. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

This is a case where political expedience and justice point in the same direction. A thorough investigation will undoubtedly uncover numerous examples of abuses of power under the Bush administration. But Bill Clinton was hardly a civil libertarian himself. Thoroughly investigating abuses of power under Clinton (and under Reagan and Bush I) will serve two important purposes. First, of course, it will help to deflect spurious charges that the investigation is a partisan witchhunt. But more importantly, it will likely underscore the point that abuses of power are a bipartisan phenomenon. The problem is not just that George W. Bush was too secretive or power-hungry (although of course he was). The problem is that presidents are almost always secretive and power-hungry, and our system of government needs better checks and balances to ensure that presidential attempts to evade accountability do not succeed. The abuses of the Bush/Cheney years may provide the political momentum we need to fix the problem. But the problem is bigger than any one administration.