A Look Back … The Church Committee Meets
The Senate's famous "Church Committee" began its investigation of US intelligence in April 1975. Its findings the following year would mark a watershed for the Intelligence Community. In the Final Report, Senator Frank Church and his colleagues concluded that the United States needed a capability for clandestine activities overseas and covert action operations – with proper safeguards. More importantly, the procedures and findings of the Church Committee helped to alter forever Congress's role inoverseeing the Community.
In 1975, the Senate created the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities in response to a raft of media allegations of wrongdoing. The panel – better known by the name of its chairman, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) – interpreted its charter as a mandate to "determine what secret governmental activities are necessary and how they best can be conducted under the rule of law."
Church and his colleagues prepared one of the most detailed public appraisals of any nation's intelligence structure. The Final Report proposed changes to the organization and management of the Intelligence Community, which echoed the recent thinking in the executive branch. The report said the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) should focus on Intelligence Community affairs, and that the DCI should relinquish direct supervision of the CIA to a deputy. The committee insisted on greater Congressional and policymaker oversight of intelligence, and suggested amendments to the various statutes affecting the field.
The breakthrough for the Church Committee came in its treatment of the operational side of American intelligence. The committee suggested that intelligence should be a collector of data and producer of information, as well as an instrument for implementing US foreign policy. The report concentrated on clandestine activities, but it took a judicious approach that tempered criticisms.
It concluded that intelligence had made "important contributions" to national security and become a "permanent and necessary component of our government." This conclusion countered growing public and congressional concern over the integrity of the nation's intelligence agencies. Even covert action received a grudging endorsement. The committee had considered "proposing a total ban on all forms of covert action," but concluded that America should retain a capability to react to extraordinary threats through covert means.
Within two years of the Final Report's release, the Senate and House formed permanent committees to oversee the Intelligence Community. While these oversight committees have always operated within distinct limits (in part because of their competition with the established authorizing and appropriating committees), their oversight has had a clearly positive effect. By looking at the Intelligence Community more or less as a whole, they have tended to make it more coherent, disciplined, and accountable.