Over the next five weeks C-SPAN 3 is airing a five part series on the Church Committee Hearings. The famous hearings, held forty years ago, looked into the activities of the CIA, NSA, and the FBI. From 1975-76, the committee investigated the history of these organizations. After the troubling revelations of the Watergate Scandal were brought to light, resulting in the downfall of the Nixon administration (1969-74), the new congressional class of 1974, dubbed the “Watergate Babies,” sought out to restore congressional oversight over the intelligence community.
In 1974 the NY Times ran a story on the classified “Family Jewels” report the CIA compiled after their own internal investigation on the agency’s role in assassination plots, funding coup attempts in the Third World, and domestic surveillance on the Civil Rights and Student Protest Movements. Needless to say, the story piqued the interest of a curious public.
Members of the Church Committee included the Democratic Chairman Frank Church (Idaho), Phillip Hart (Michigan), Walter Mondale (Minnesota), Walter Huddleston (Kentucky), Robert Morgan (North Carolina), and Gary Hart (Colorado). Republican members included Vice Chairman John Tower (Texas), Howard Baker (Tennessee), Barry Goldwater (Arizona), Charles Mathias (Maryland), Richard Schweiker (Pennsylvania).
Each episode begins with Senate Historian Katherine Scott discussing the historical background of the portions that will air. The first installment focused on William Colby’s testimony on September 16, 1975. Colby, CIA director from 1973-76, answered the questions in an unsettling detached tone. Most of the queries centered upon biological weapons, specifically the use of shell fish toxins. After a gigantic supply of toxins was discovered at Fort Detrick in Maryland (where many biological weapons were developed during the Cold War) it was assumed they were being set aside for use in combat. For dramatic effect a “Heart-Attack Gun”, specially designed to shoot a toxic agent, got passed around the Senate Chamber for a photo-op.
Senator Walter Mondale questioned Colby on the concept of “plausible deniability.” The phrase refers to a chain of command system where someone can give orders and approve certain activities they know little about, thus freeing them of responsibility (or criminal prosecution) if things go wrong. Colby defended the idea and spoke openly of the “need to know” approach to intelligence gathering. It goes without saying plausible deniability can lead to gross abuse of power and a license to commit illegal acts.
The fiery conservative Barry Goldwater, with the demeanor of a bored High School student, read his own statement defending the CIA and encouraged young people to consider a career with the agency. He asked Colby if other countries had biological weapon programs to which Colby replied in the affirmative. The point being, if they are building them so should we.
Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland inquired as to whether the use of toxic agents against foreign nationals could be construed as an act of war by the United States, even a violation of the War Powers Act of 1973. The War Powers Act, designed to curb presidential power after the Vietnam War, symbolized a reassertion of the legislative branch on matters of defense and foreign policy. Scholars spoke of an “Imperial Presidency”, meaning the realities of the Cold War simply made it unfeasible for a President to consult congress during a national security crisis, creating a disturbance in the balance of powers designed in the Constitution. Colby dodged the question as one for legal scholars. Mathias sadly expressed his reservations with the “excessive secrecy” of the CIA.
It goes without saying the Church Hearings influenced pop culture for years to come. The goings on at Fort Detrick may have inspired Stephen King’s novel The Stand and the 1985 zombie film Return of the Living Dead. For the first time, members of the government openly spoke of their clandestine activities, forever changing the dynamic between the government and its citizens.