1999-2000 (Winter)

Unlucky SHAMROCK: Recollections from the Church Committee's Investigation of NSA

By L. Britt Snider


In January 1975, I was offered a position as counsel on the staff of the Church Committee. I was 30, and Senator Sam Ervin, for whom I had worked since 1971, had retired and returned to North Carolina. While I had participated in Senator Ervin’s inquiry into the domestic activities of Army intelligence elements during the Vietnam era, the foreign intelligence apparatus of the United States, which I now confronted, was, quite literally, foreign to me, as it was to many of those joining the Church Committee staff.

To make matters worse, I was given the task (along with a staff colleague, Peter Fenn 1) of trying to crack what was perceived to be the most secretive of US intelligence agencies, the National Security Agency (NSA). Unlike the CIA and FBI, which were the agencies principally in the Committee’s sights–thanks to a number of sensational press accounts–there had been no press exposés about NSA. Our supervisor, in fact, seemed to take particular delight in pitting Pete and me against this mysterious Goliath. “They call it ‘No Such Agency,'” he said. “Let’s see what you boys can find out about it.” It was the first time I had heard the agency referred to this way, and it was not long before I understood why.

What ensued was something of an odyssey that lasted over the better part of a year. It began with a series of fruitless, sometimes comical, efforts to penetrate NSA’s defenses. (“They must have done something,” our boss wailed.) Then, an unexpected breakthrough caused us to redirect our inquiry along two separate but ultimately converging, lines; Peter took the lead on one inquiry, and I took the other lead. Over a period of months, a story emerged that previously had not seen the light of day–a story that had long-term implications for NSA and for the relationship of the Intelligence Community to the private sector. Our work also provided the context for a rare Congressional challenge to the President’s authority in the national security area.

I decided to write about this episode primarily to preserve it for the historical record. While much of the story was disclosed over the course of the Church Committee’s inquiry, there were aspects that never became public. Given the way the Committee operated, no one other than the staffers doing the work knew the whole story.

Editor’s note: In 2008, CSI published Snider’s groundbreaking study, The Agency and the Hill: CIA’s Relationship with Congress, 1946–2004.

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