Nearly 50 years ago, the Church Committee began holding hearings to investigate the CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies’ lawless and secret efforts to spy on and plan assassination plots. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill is joined by James Risen and Thomas Risen to discuss how the CIA — without oversight from Congress and at times behind the backs of U.S. presidents — orchestrated coups against popular democratic governments from Guatemala to Iran and spied on anti-war activists and Black Power leaders inside the U.S. It was not until the Democratic Sen. Frank Church decided to take on this unaccountable, powerful, covert force within the U.S. national security apparatus that some of the CIA’s crimes and abuses came into public view. Sen. Church chaired a committee in 1975 that sought to reign in the CIA and impose laws and rules for their conduct. A new book by James Risen and Thomas Risen, called “The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys — and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy,” tells the story of the man behind the Church Committee and how an unlikely hero emerged to battle the most powerful secret entity in the U.S. government.
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Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
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JS: Welcome to Intercepted. I am Jeremy Scahill.
I’m sure many of you recall that earlier this year there was a showdown over the House Speakership of Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Matt Gaetz: Because we do not trust Mr. McCarthy with power, because we know who he will use it for, and we are concerned it will not be for the American people. We trust Jim Jordan; I nominate him and I’m going to vote for him.
Those events highlighted one of the more impressive grifter trains that’s now docked in the U.S. capitol, the idea that you have this new generation of anti-imperialist lawmakers, many of whom just happen to be loyal to Donald Trump and his movement. While some members of the Freedom Caucus do consistently take on serious issues that should be confronted — including on war, civil liberties and the increasing power of tech companies — the newly launched select subcommittee to investigate the quote, “weaponization of the federal government,” it’s not being established to engage in the kind of rigorous investigation embodied by the House Committee on Assassinations, or by the Church Committee in 1975.
This new committee, it’s clear, is going to largely be a partisan lollapalooza of wacky theories and totally hypocritical attacks. What’s notable, however, is that by taking on issues that have long been associated with the political left in the United States, these Republicans, who have been banging the drums about the deep state, have unmasked just how much the established power within the current Democratic Party actually reveres the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the broader national security state.
CBS News: New Congress, new subcommittees. In a partisan vote, House Republicans this week approved the creation of the select committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. The vague resolution that created the committee gives it the authority to broadly investigate the Executive Branch and any federal agency that falls under its control. The committee will have subpoena power, and will be chaired by Ohio Republican Jim Jordan.
Jim Jordan: In my time in congress, I have never seen anything like this. Dozens and dozens of whistleblowers – FBI agents — coming to us, talking about what’s going on, the political nature of the Justice Department.
The U.S. has long needed a Church-style investigation into a wide range of abuses by the state and its security and intelligence forces, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, particularly one focused on the actions of the government from 9/11 to the present. There has never been anything close to a serious probe into the massive abuses that occurred under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, both internationally and domestically. Nor has there been a serious probe into the extent to which the Obama administration normalized and systematized assassination as an acceptable and frequently used practice.
Barack Obama: Simply put, these strikes have saved lives. Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So, this is a just war, a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.
The tragic reality is that there are no current lawmakers with the spine, the will, or the political influence to launch such a probe against the U.S. intelligence military apparatus. In fact, such a committee would be impossible to imagine, given the current state of the Republican and Democratic parties.
So, today on the show, we are going to take a trip back in time to an era where the CIA was operating as a lawless, largely autonomous entity within the U.S. government. The Agency was orchestrating coups against popular democratic governments, from Guatemala to Iran, from Chile to the Congo, and beyond. It was spying on anti-war activists and Black Power leaders inside the United States. It was working in concert with large American corporations abroad and crushing labor movements and anti-U.S. revolutions. All the while, doing so without any oversight from Congress and, at times, behind the back of presidents of the United States.
Tom Charles Huston, former associate counsel and staff under Nixon: Well, the Operation Chaos, and that is, apparently, the CIA had a group set up that was concerned directly with matters affecting domestic intelligence collection, or events that were occurring within the continental United States. We didn’t know about that. In fact, the impression that we had all along was that the CIA had very little interest in or coverage of areas that we thought were important, which was what happened abroad, when these people who were under surveillance by the FBI left the country. That’s where we thought the CIA efforts should be.
Senator Howard Baker: Do you have any information, can you tell me, quickly, who authorized either COINTEL or CHAOS? Was it a presidential authorization?
Tom Charles Huston: I don’t think any president knew about it.
It was not until a Democratic senator from the state of Idaho decided to take on this unaccountable powerful covert force within the national security apparatus of the U.S. government that some of the CIA’s crimes and abuses were first presented to the U.S. public. Senator Frank Church chaired a committee in 1975 that sought to reign in the CIA and impose laws and rules for its conduct and its oversight.
Senator Frank Church: We regard the assassination plots as aberrations. The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. Means are as important as ends. Crisis makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make man free. But each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength which makes us free, is lessened.
Some of the witnesses who cooperated with the Church Committee were threatened. Others died under mysterious circumstances. It is an extremely important moment in modern U.S. history, and the work of the Church Committee is unfortunately relevant to this moment.
A new book has just been published this week that tells the story of the man behind the Church Committee, and how an unlikely hero emerged to battle the most powerful secret entity in the U.S. government. The book is called The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys — and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy. Its authors are a father and son team. My colleague James Risen is a Senior National Security Correspondent for The Intercept, and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Thomas Risen has spent years reporting on U.S. politics and national security, including the intelligence community, digital surveillance, and the War on Terror. He currently works as an aviation journalist.
James Risen, Thomas Risen, I want to welcome both of you to Intercepted.
James Risen: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JS: Thomas Risen, thank you for a first-time appearance on Intercepted.
Thomas Risen: Thanks for having me.
JS: Jim, I want to start with you. We’re going to talk about CIA dirty deeds, the path that led to the War Powers Act, the path that led to the establishment of actual committees in the United States Congress that would have meaningful oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency.
But this book that you and Thomas have written, I first have to say, I think it’s a gripping book. I think it’s a very easily readable book, and it distills a really complex arc of dark American history into a really manageable history, and I encourage people to pick this book up, because it’s extremely relevant to the times in which we’re living.
We’re going to get into all of this stuff — CIA misdeeds, the Church Committee — but let’s just start with the simple biographical question. Jim, explain who Senator Frank Church was.
JR: Frank Church was a fascinating character. He was a liberal Democrat from Idaho, which doesn’t sound like it’s possible today, but he was probably the most progressive senator in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States Senate, and he was extremely consequential, both during the Vietnam War, and in the 1970s in a period of progressive reform. He is probably more responsible than anyone else in American history for reigning in the power of the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community.
The Church Committee, which he led in 1975 and early 1976, was the first time that the CIA had ever been submitted to any form of real oversight, and it’s his efforts in the Church Committee that have brought the U.S. intelligence community under the rule of law. So, I think he’s one of the most important people in American history that very few people know about.
TR: I’ve been telling people he’s the most important senator you’ve never heard of. Because he was in office from 1957 to 1981, he spanned so many of the most important events of the Cold War, everything from civil rights to the Panama Canal. The Church Committee is his big achievement, but he did a lot.
JS: I wanted to ask, he clearly was dramatically impacted by the way that the Vietnam War went. He himself was a World War II veteran but, when he first was elected — I think he was elected at the age of 32 to the United States Senate — when he was first elected, his major issues were not really centering around American foreign policy. And, in fact, at the beginning of the Vietnam War, he more or less — as you write in the book — was kind of going along with the war train, and generally seemed to believe what the American people were being told by their leaders.
Talk about why and when he started to question what was happening in the war in Vietnam, and set the political context because, as you write, Church emerged as one of the earliest critical voices on that war.
JR: Yeah, he was, as you said, he had served in World War II in China. He had been an army intelligence officer, and he had grown very disgusted with the corruption in the Chinese nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and he brought that attitude with him back to the United States. When he got into the Senate in the 1950s, however, he was still a cold warrior. The Democratic Party in the late 1950s was really trying to prove its Cold War bona fides to counter McCarthyism and the rise of red-baiting that had been so rampant in the early 1950s.
And so, you had what I guess you would call the “Kennedyesque Cold War approach,” which was trying to be more hawkish than the Republicans on the Soviets. And so, in the late 1950s, Church was very conventional in his thinking about foreign policy. But it was early in the 1960s after The Kennedy administration got involved in Vietnam, and he took his first trip to Vietnam in 1962, and he began to see just how corrupt, and incompetent, and stupid the war was. And he really relied on his experience in China to see through what was happening in Vietnam very quickly; much more quickly than almost any other senator.
TR: One thing I noticed researching the 20th century is, it wasn’t just the Democrats, it was everyone who just believed what the government told them. Because most of human civilization is, don’t ask questions, your authority figures are always right, and it was really World War I or World War II that changed that, because these are global wars, all at once, everyone’s asking questions – how could this happen?
Frank Church is in the middle of that. He fought in World War II, so did a lot of his colleagues, and it was really the baby boomers who were more willing to ask questions. Like, he has a son. His son Forrest Church is even more liberal than he is, and thinks his dad is kind of a sellout, even though he is one of the most liberal members of the Senate. So, it was a generational thing too. It wasn’t just a political thing.
JS: Yeah. In fact, you guys tell this story about when Forrest Church gets married, Frank Church and his wife, it was unclear that they were even going to be able to go to the wedding, because Church was at the center of really intense political moments in Washington, D.C. And then they arrive at the wedding and discover that his son Forrest and his wife-to-be are going to take what they characterized as pacifist vows, and that they actually had created almost, like, anti-war leaflets to pass out at the wedding. And the Churches basically said, we can’t stay at this wedding if you distribute these pamphlets to the guests.
JR: Right, right. Yeah, that was probably the biggest crisis, personal crisis that Church had, was his relationship with his oldest son, Forrest. And Forrest was really depressed by the Vietnam War, and that had a big effect on Frank Church, and it led him to become more and more radical in his thinking about Vietnam. By the late 1960s, early 1970s, Church had become the leading anti-war voice in the United States Senate.
JS: Thomas, in the book you write that, “While Lyndon Johnson was infuriated by Frank Church and other leading doves in Congress, he was even more enraged by the growing momentum behind the anti-war movement throughout the country. So, under Johnson, the CIA began to spy on American anti-war activists, work with colleges, police, and other informants to identify the leaders of anti-war groups.
“But Church,” you write, “had an instinctual sense that Vietnam was unleashing the power of the national security state that had been built in the wake of World War II, and that it was turning the United States into an imperial power rather than a democratic republic. Rather than becoming a force for peace, America was becoming a destroyer of it.
“Church’s political outlook,” you write, “was now a heady mix of idealism and cynicism. Frank Church, the mainstream politician from a conservative rural state, was quietly becoming a political radical.” Expand on that.
TR: Yeah, definitely, because he went to Vietnam in 1962 and just saw how absurd the situation was and, more and more and more, people could not ignore it. And he thought, hey, this is insane, why are we doing this? And Johnson — and Nixon after him — were just so insecure about the war. They’re like, I don’t want to lose a war. I don’t want to fight the war, but I don’t want to lose, I don’t want to surrender. And Frank Church says, what are you doing? This is insane.
And a lot of other people, like I said, it was a generational thing. They just go along because – I think there was one Vietnam veteran who, in a documentary, said, we were the last kids of any generation who believed our government would never lie to us. And Frank Church is kind of halfway there, and he says, okay, this has to stop, this is insane. And a lot of people just don’t want to rock the boat, but he’s willing to do it, which is pretty remarkable for a guy who wants to be accepted in Washington, which usually means you go along to get along.
JR: One of the things about Church’s role in the fight against Vietnam, he eventually took on the role of leading an effort in the Senate to cut off funding for the Vietnam War, and a series of amendments called the Cooper-Church Amendments. And the Cooper Church Amendment debates became the centerpiece in Congress for the fight.
Most people today only remember the street protests and the massive protests by college students and other people against the war, and they don’t really remember the congressional debates very clearly. But what interested me was how significant the Cooper-Church debates were in convincing Nixon that he had to accelerate the peace negotiations, because he was losing Congress, and he was losing the ability to continue to get funding for the war.
JS: Jim, just to clarify: when you say the Cooper-Church Amendments, there was a political alliance that formed that was across party lines, between Senator Frank Church, a Democrat of Idaho, and then Senator John Cooper, who was a Republican from Kentucky.
JS: And when they first started proposing amendments, I think the first one had to do with Thailand, and a concern that the U.S. was going to expand the war in that direction. And Nixon basically didn’t care much about it, didn’t raise much ruckus about it. But then you had — under the direction of Nixon and Henry Kissinger and others — an expansion of the war. Secret CIA death squads, secret bombing campaigns. And then you had this extreme political battle that starts to play out between the Nixon White House, with all of its malignant actors and actions. And then, this two-person bipartisan wrecking ball trying to take on Nixon on a procedural level. To, for instance, cut off funding for ground troops to operate in Cambodia.
Senator Frank Church: This End the War Amendment takes the full step and provides an orderly method for the extraction of the United States from the war in Vietnam itself.
Senator George McGovern: And so, what we’re looking for is a reasonable way to accomplish that withdrawal. And I think that the principle stumbling block now is that we’re somehow worried about losing face, we’re worried about embarrassing the policy makers that sent us in there. We’re worried about admitting that perhaps we made a mistake. Actually, I think it would contribute to the greatness of the United States if, as a free people, we can just admit that we’re capable of making a mistake, and then do the best we can to put an early end to it.
JR: Yeah, it was really Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia in 1970 which brought the war back into the headlines. I had forgotten until I got into this that the war had kind of faded from view, because Nixon had very cleverly tried to do what he called “Vietnamization,” and reduce the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam as soon as he came in. And that had the effect of reducing the news media’s coverage of the war. But it was really Kent State and the Cambodian invasion in 1970 that brought it back to the fore.
And, it was then, that the Cooper Church Amendments began to have real teeth. And it was then that Church really took the lead over the next few years, in trying to reduce funding, either for things like Cambodia, and then eventually actually trying to directly cut off funding for the operations in Vietnam. I think historians now generally agree that that had a major effect on Nixon’s timetable for seeking an end of the war.
JS: I want to ask you both to just walk us through some of the context of how the CIA operated some of its most notorious hits, if you will, from its creation coming out of World War II, through the moment when Frank Church starts to realize that his life’s calling is essentially to take on all of these abuses that have been committed by the CIA.
But, in the book, you write, “Without oversight, the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community had grown into a secret government within a government. That growth had rapidly accelerated in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who came to view global covert operations conducted by the CIA as an essential substitute for all-out war. He wanted to challenge the Soviet Union in the Cold War without a direct military confrontation, and the CIA became his primary tool for doing so.”
Describe that era, the 25 plus years of the CIA, leading up to the Church Committee.
JR: Yeah. You know, the CIA was created under the Truman administration, and it was originally thought of as a place where you would gather and collect, centrally, all of the intelligence that the U.S. government had, and it would primarily be an intelligence and analytical agency.
But there was the legislative charter, it was vague enough that it also allowed for the creation of a covert action arm. And it really wasn’t until Dwight Eisenhower came into office that the covert action really began in a major way, with coup attempts, the plans to launch coups in Iran and Guatemala, then in Cuba later.
But, what I’ll let Tom talk about: I think one of the worst things that happened in the 1950s was that while Eisenhower was using the CIA as a substitute for armed conflict, he was allowing the CIA to do other things that they wanted to do, like mind-control drug programs that Tom can talk about.
TR: Yeah. I blame Alan Dulles for so much of it. He wasn’t the first CIA director, he was the first director who was in office for more than a few years. He and his older brother, John Foster Dulles – he was Secretary of State, John Foster, under Eisenhower. Alan Dulles was CIA director, they’re brothers. Huge conflict of interest, should have never happened, Eisenhower’s a weak politician; that’s my summary there.
But they were both corporate lawyers who worked in Sullivan & Crowell, hugely influential, knew a ton of rich people. They used the CIA to help grant favors for their rich friends, like in Guatemala and Congo and Iran. You know, oil, fruit, minerals, and these two guys should have never been in charge of their respective agencies, that’s a huge part of it, as Alan Dulles really set the tone for the CIA to become an arrogant, elitist secret operation. And I don’t know if it would’ve been that way if he hadn’t been in charge for about ten years, and he really just set in motion so many horrible things.
But, by the 1970s, you see the shift. Even before the Church Committee, some of the dead weight and some of the real crazy people who were hired by Allen Dulles were being pushed out, like James Angleton, a paranoid alcoholic who’s mentioned in the book. And so, even before 1975 and the Church Committee, you see this shift in the CIA of all these people who worked for Alan Dulles, and Frank Church arrived at just the right time when this shift was already happening.
JS: Jim, you write about how Frank Church had major political ambitions, that he was a complicated figure, that his reputation in Washington was a very mixed reputation, in part because of the perception that he also liked being in the center of attention. He and his wife would have big parties at their house, and they would mingle with a variety of political luminaries, but also Hollywood stars. You described in the book how Liberace showed up at one of their parties in a stretch limousine.
But talk about — because we’re going to now start to get into the very serious business of what went down with the Church Committee – but, for a moment, just talk about the political personality, and the complex relationship that Frank Church had to establish power in Washington.
JR: I think the fatal flaw or the tragic flaw in his life was that, as he became more radicalized by Vietnam, and by a belief that the United States was becoming a militaristic empire in the 1960s, there was this other side of him that was deeply ambitious, and was pushed by his wife Bethine — who was equally, if not more so ambitious — and he wanted to be president. And his two big ideas in his life, one that the United States had to be reformed in order to stop it from becoming an empire, and his personal political ambition were always in conflict.
Unfortunately, I think he could have gone further with his progressive radical ideas than he did, and I think, ultimately. it was his desire for status and for the presidency, ultimately, I think forced him to pull some of his punches.
JS: Thomas, I want to ask you to set up for us the precursor to the Church Committee that centered around the CIA’s role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the early 1970s. But, to get to that point, we need to back up a little bit to how the famed investigative journalist Jack Anderson began breaking the story about the activities of the private company ITT in Chile.
First, explain what ITT was, and what the origin story of this scandal looked like.
TR: Yeah, it’s a major telecommunications company, did a lot of business in South America, Central America. And so, Richard Nixon was doing favors for them because they wanted to– It’s like in Guatemala, United Fruit muscles, you know? Big companies have interests in other foreign countries, and Frank Church starts to notice this, so he starts an investigation of corporate power influencing foreign policy, which is very much the case when Alan Dulles was in charge.
And so, he does this investigation into Chile and ITT, and this is an example where Senator Fulbright definitely pulls his punches. Senator Fulbright gets a lot of attention for bringing the heat on Vietnam, but Fulbright was really, really cautious when it came to – You know, Frank Church was really the one pushing the progressive side of the foreign relations committee, and he doesn’t get credit for that.
Because Fulbright kept getting all these secret documents, and he passed them to Jack Anderson, because he didn’t want to come out and say, hey, I have these secret documents. So he lets Frank Church be the one to run with these investigations, because Senator Fulbright is one of those older generation guys who says, I want to be the status quo establishment figure, and not rock the boat the way Frank Church is willing to rock the boat.
So all of these investigations do build on each other. And even Watergate makes the Church Committee possible. There’s this huge fever pitch by 1975, and everyone is finally ready to ask questions.
JR: Yeah, the ITT investigation started as you mentioned. Jack Anderson had investigated or had broken the story of how ITT had paid $400,000 to the Nixon reelection campaign and, in exchange, wanted an antitrust waiver for a merger, an acquisition of an insurance company. But, at the same time, another whistleblower had brought some — or a journalist, actually — had brought a bunch of documents between ITT and the CIA to Fulbright, who was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And Fulbright was interested in doing something with them, but then decided not to.
And so, he leaked them to Jack Anderson after Anderson wrote about ITT and the Nixon administration, and that ultimately led to the creation of a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Frank Church to investigate the CIA and ITT in Chile, and other multinational operations around the world.
TR: Yeah, it used to be legal for American companies to bribe foreign politicians, and now it’s not, because of Frank Church. We have the FCPA because of him.
JS: You tell a really interesting story about the fate of the former director of the CIA, Richard Helms, who got taken down as a result of this. When Nixon wants him out of the CIA, because Helms is not going to play ball with using the CIA to take the fall for the Watergate break-in and the broader scandal. But Nixon, a brilliant strategist of “keep your enemies close,” nominates Richard Helms. And I had forgotten this part of it. I knew that he had wanted to keep Helms in the orbit, but I didn’t remember that Richard Nixon nominates Richard Helms to be U.S. Ambassador to Iran. And that would then subject Helms to a Senate confirmation hearing, and Frank Church and his colleagues then decide to go to town on Richard Helms.
And Jim, pick it up from there. What happens?
JR: Yeah. Helms had to be confirmed by the Senate, and Frank Church decided to take advantage of the fact that he was being confirmed and had to go through hearings to ask him questions about ITT and the CIA in Chile. And he knew that Helms had been previously lying about the role of the CIA in Chile, and he asked a whole series of questions, had a whole series of questions prepared to ask Helms, and Helms began to lie under oath.
And that led to a long investigation of perjury by the Justice Department of Helms, even as he continued to serve as a U.S. Ambassador to Iran. And Helms had to fly back and forth between Iran and Washington repeatedly, to testify both before the Church Committee, and had to deal with the Justice Department prosecution of him.
JS: Now you had this moment in history now that we’re arriving at, where the Watergate break-in happens. The wagons are now circling Nixon. You have the two major newspapers in the United States – The New York Times, and The Washington Post – beginning to aggressively uncover all sorts of misdeeds that were committed by Richard Nixon directly and by his underlings in the Nixon administration. And when Congress starts to assemble a committee that is going to be — and this was before the era of the internet, before the era of cable news — this is going to be watched by everyone in the country, they’re assembling which political figures in Washington are going to lead this.
And Frank Church, who, at that point, was a very well-known opponent of the war in Vietnam, it was starting to be understood that he was right about the war in Vietnam, it would have been the moment where you say, obviously we’re going to have Senator Frank Church on this committee. And Church is boxed out.
First, just briefly, why wasn’t Church appointed to serve on any of the Watergate investigative committees?
JR: Well, Mike Mansfield, who was the Senate Majority leader, the Democratic Senate Majority leader, handpicked the members of the Senate Watergate Committee. And he had delayed creating a Watergate committee until early 1973, even though Watergate had first broken in the summer of 1972. He was very concerned about making it look bipartisan and not dominated by liberals. He wanted to make it look as if the Democrats were not making this into a partisan investigation.
And so, he picked Sam Ervin, a senator from North Carolina who was very conservative. He had been a segregationist, that was what he was best known for, prior to Watergate. And he didn’t want any major liberals on the committee, and so he kept Church off of the committee. And Church, as you said, had just become this rising star because of Vietnam, and suddenly he was out of the limelight, on the biggest stage in the Senate.
JS: Yes, that’s true, but as you point out in the book, the fact that Church was now starting on this other path of investigation. And, in fact, as you write that Church was, quote, “…convinced that the sources of that power” — American power, CIA, etc. — “were not just political or military, but economic and financial as well. So Church began a landmark investigation into the rising global power of America’s corporate giants, and the trail he began to follow would ultimately lead him to the CIA. He would inadvertently begin to uncover the CIA’s hidden power for the first time in his Senate career, and that would eventually lead to an even more ambitious congressional investigation of the CIA and the intelligence community: the Church Committee. To counter Washington’s imperial drift, Church realized Congress had a powerful tool that it had failed to put to good use during the Vietnam War, the ability to investigate.”
So, Thomas, even though he was not selected for the front row seat to history with the Watergate hearings, his ability to read the political trends and what was actually at the heart of importance in these matters ends up inadvertently putting him there, and putting him on the path to the creation of what would become known as the Church Committee.
TR: Yeah, he wasn’t on the Watergate committee, but his investigation of corporate power, like in Chile, Watergate highlighted that, because people grouped it together, because it was government scrutiny. And one of the governing trends you get from reading the book is that Frank Church was more right than he realized.
One of the challenges of writing a book 50 years after the fact is, we know so much more, and we put some of that in the book, but we obviously couldn’t overstep what Frank Church did and didn’t know, but things were so much worse than he realized. Like the corporate bribery and the ties of the CIA were so much worse. Like, he investigates corporate bribery of Japan; that was instigated by the CIA, who started bribing the Japanese politicians right after World War II, and he didn’t know that. So, he was very, very right, more than he realized.
JR: And I think that one of the things that I always thought was kind of funny was, he started the multinational investigation of the CIA and ITT, the subcommittee was created in 1972, but the Nixon administration pressured the Senate to delay the start of his investigation until 1973, because they didn’t want it during the presidential election in 1972. But, as a result, the multinational subcommittee started its hearings at almost the same time as the Watergate hearings. And, as a result, as Tom said, the two seemed to be all part of the same investigation to the public. It looked like it was kind of an offshoot of Watergate.
JS: Let’s get now to the heart of the book, sort of the climactic end to the book. Talk about how what came to be known as the Church Committee was formed, what its mandate was, and how things kind of kicked off, Jim.
JR: Yes. Sy, you know, a man who I know you and I both have a great deal of respect for — Sy Hersh — who was, at that point, really at the peak of his reporting powers as a journalist. He had investigated My Lai and Watergate, and he was then at The New York Times. And as he was working on Watergate, he began to hear about abuses at the CIA. And so, he kind of split off from covering Watergate and secretly began to investigate the CIA in 1974.
And, in December, 1974, he broke a massive story about domestic spying by the CIA, mostly on anti-war dissidents during the Vietnam War. And that story, it had a huge impact in Washington, and it led Congress to a lot of demands for investigations of the CIA. And that led the Senate to create what became the Church Committee, and the House to create what later became the Pike Committee, which were to the first real investigations of the CIA.
And the reason they were able to finally conduct real investigations of the CIA was, in the midterm elections of 1974 the Democrats had won a landslide, and they had 60 senators and almost 300 members of the House. And so, they had overwhelming ability to do what they wanted in Congress, and so they very rapidly created investigative committees to investigate the CIA.
TR: And one of the trends is, 1974, 1976 have some of the lowest voter turnout in decades prior to that, because everyone was so disillusioned with the government, they stayed home. But not Democrats. They went out and voted. That’s a cautionary tale right there, you know? You need to keep people interested so that they’ll vote. And another interesting factoid is, the CIA’s domestic spying during Vietnam was called
“Hydra.” Like the Captain America movies. “Hail, Hydra,” you know? It’s pretty crazy.
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JS: What was the reaction when it became clear that this was not going to just be a sweep, you know? Take a couple of lumps and then sweep the rest under the rug. When it was clear that this was going to be a real investigation? I mean, getting so down the rabbit hole that they investigated a shellfish poison dart gun that the CIA had manufactured.
Senator Frank Church: Isn’t it true, too, that the effort not only involved designing a gun that could strike a human target without knowledge of the person who’d been struck, but also the toxin itself would not appear in the autopsy?
CIA Director William Colby: Well, there was an attempt—
FC: Was a dart?
WC: Yes. So that there was no way of perceiving that the target was hit.
WC: As a murder instrument, that’s about as efficient as you can get, isn’t it?
WC: It is a weapon, a very serious weapon.
But the CIA realizes, like, this is not going to just be a kind of low scale temporary thing, there’s going to be real stuff exposed here. What was the response from the agency at the time to the Church Committee?
JR: Oh, they hated the Church Committee. They tried to stop it. Both the Ford — Gerald Ford was the president then — both the White House and the CIA did their best to try to blunt the efforts for major aggressive congressional investigations. And the leader of the efforts in the White House was Dick Cheney, who was then the Deputy White House Chief of Staff under Donald Rumsfeld.
And, really, Cheney and Rumsfeld came up with the idea of, the way to try to blunt a congressional investigation was to create a presidential investigation, that could be controlled and create a whitewash of all the problems and make it go away. And so, they came up with the idea right after Sy Hersh’s story came out for what became known as the Rockefeller Commission, which would be a presidential commission to investigate abuses at the CIA. And it was stacked with people who were very pro-CIA and pro intelligence, including Ronald Reagan, who was just coming off being governor of California, and was thinking about running against Jerry Ford for president.
And so, it was an effort by the White House and with the cooperation of the CIA to prevent Congress from doing major investigations, but the Senate and the House both ignored that effort and just created their own committees anyway.
JS: You write in the book, that, “Church’s historic achievement bringing the intelligence community under the rule of law did not come easily. Three Church Committee witnesses were murdered, including one before he could testify. No one has ever been able to determine whether any of them were killed because they talked or were planning to talk to the committee, but the coincidences kept piling up, and the killings brought an unnerving sense of danger to the Church Committee.”
What was that environment like that Church was operating in? Was he afraid that he himself was going to, you know, find a shellfish-poisoned dart to the neck? I mean, no, seriously. Did Church fear that he was going to potentially be targeted for assassination inside of United States by the CIA for investigating?
JR: Well, I don’t know about whether he thought he was going to be murdered, but he did fear, he did know and suspect that they were trying to discredit him, and that they put out rumors, and false allegations, and disinformation against him. But he began to get very worried once their witnesses started getting murdered.
Tom was very good at getting all of the police files for all those cases, why don’t you talk about Sam Giancana?
TR: Yes. The witnesses who were murdered were Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli, and Orlando Letelier, which we disclose in the book that, never before revealed is that Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier spoke with the Church Committee, and not all of it was made public; that was part of a deal that he made with the CIA, because the CIA said, oh, I don’t want you to talk about our clandestine operations. And so, they didn’t reveal all that.
All three of those people had a target on their back to begin with, but talking to the Senate didn’t help. Like, the two mafia guys already kind of outlived their usefulness, and people don’t die of old age in the mafia, so it was kind of the last straw for them. And Orlando Letelier, you know, Pinochet was already after him, and when it was revealed that he had connections with Congress, he said, okay, I have to step this up, and he car-bombed him in 1976.
JS: He car-bombed him in– It was in the United States, wasn’t it?
JR: In Washington
JR: Downtown Washington. Yeah.
JS: Letelier-Moffitt. And I believe at the time Letelier was working with the Institute for Policy Studies, which is a progressive think tank in Washington. So this was a car bomb assassination that took place in the nation’s capital, of a witness that had been cooperating in an investigation into the CIA, including the CIA role in overthrowing the democratically elected government that Orlando Letelier was a supporter of.
JR: Right, right. And I found an old declassified cable where Kissinger talks about how the head of the Chilean Intelligence Service came to visit him and said, I don’t like the fact that Letelier is talking to Congress. While he didn’t specifically mention the Church Committee, the fact that Letelier was talking to people in Congress was clearly one of the reasons he was assassinated.
JS: I’d like for you guys to explain the relationship of the CIA director William Colby to the executive branch in the United States, because he was a complicated figure. There have been documentaries and books, he’s an interesting figure in the story and the history of the CIA But also, his approach to the Church Committee, which got him in trouble among the lifers at the CIA, the kind of elite class that Thomas was talking about earlier. Explain who William Colby was, and his approach to running the CIA and cooperating with the Church Committee.
JR: Colby was a lifer at the CIA. He had started in the OSS in World War II, and parachuted into Norway, and did other operations. And then, in the 1960s, he was Saigon Station Chief for the CIA, and also played a role in leading and creating what became known as the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, which was essentially, you know, the CIA has long denied it, but it was essentially an assassination program against the Viet Cong leadership.
And I believe, from a lot of reading of what Colby said and did, is that he felt – he was a Catholic, and he felt deep remorse for what he had done in Vietnam. He would never admit that. In fact, he denied that the Phoenix program was an assassination program. But I believe that he came into the 1970s thinking that the CIA had to change, and that it was time for congressional oversight.
And so, when the Church Committee began, he was willing to cooperate, and he cooperated much more with Church than has ever been known before. I found letters or memos from Church where he talked about secret meetings he had with Colby during the Church Committee process. And that, really, eventually the Ford White House figured that out, that he was cooperating much more than they wanted him to cooperate with them, and so Ford fired him in the fall of 1975.
TR: It’s really interesting, the Rockefeller Commission that Ford set up was kind of a lip service, “We’re not actually going to investigate,” kind of committee. But William Colby actually volunteered information. Like, he was the one who disclosed the existence of LSD tests, like, which was really – Look it up, MK Ultra’s, horrible, horrible stuff. It was a torture program that actually informed the Phoenix Program. Like, all the torture, and tens of thousands of people they killed in Vietnam with very little intelligence. And, yeah, he definitely felt guilty about it, I think.
And, so, the Rockefeller Commission is telling him, hey, stop sharing all this information, we’re not really trying to investigate you. And then, that helps inform the investigation that the Church Committee does. And he’s very forthcoming.
Even the House Pike Committee gets kind of a raw, deal because, you know, William Colby went to Princeton, the Chief of Staff for the House Committee counterpart of the Church Committee had also gone to Princeton, and they had a rapport, and they talked privately. So, William Colby worked pretty closely with Congress.
JR: There’s a great line in Colby’s memoir where he says that, while he was testifying to the Rockefeller Commission, at the end of his testimony, one day, Rockefeller came up to him and said, do you really have to tell us all this stuff? Like, he didn’t want him to talk so much.
TR: Yeah, it’s interesting. One more thing about William Colby is that he was against the war in Vietnam. There were people in the CIA, like [John] McCone, who was CIA director, warned Johnson, hey, this is a bad idea, let’s not do this. They went along anyway. Again, it’s a generational thing. There are these people who don’t want to rock the boat. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll do it anyway, because that’s just what you did.
JS: I want to ask you about some of the specific revelations that came out of the Church Committee investigations. Talk about the series of plots to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
JR: Yeah. That was the centerpiece of the Church Committee findings, was the. investigation of the CIA’s plots to kill foreign leaders, including Fidel, most notably Fidel Castro.
News Clip: Well, this is shaping up as a bad week in Washington for the big brother aspects of government, with several investigations underway involving snooping and undercover activities. Today, the Senate’s CIA investigators heard testimony from underworld figure John Roselli about an alleged CIA mafia plot to assassinate Fidel Castro.
The centerpiece of their investigation was to investigate a plot, or a scheme by the CIA to work with the mafia to kill Castro. And they got through a cutout, a former FBI agent named Robert Mayhew. The CIA connected with Johnny Roselli, who was a Hollywood gangster, Sam Giancana, who was the chief of the Chicago mob, and Santo Trafficante, who was the head of the Florida mob, and got them all together at the Fountain Blue Hotel in Miami Beach to try to figure out how to kill Castro.
And they came up with a whole bunch of schemes, mostly involving getting poisons to people who were close to Castro, who could then poison him. Those plots never worked, but the CIA tried a number of other crazy hairbrained ideas. At least they thought about them. It’s unclear in some cases whether they actually did anything about them, or whether they were just ideas at the CIA headquarters.
One was to put toxins inside a scuba diving outfit that they would give to Castro as a gift anonymously. Another was giving poisons or toxins that would make his hair fall out.
JS: You have that famous scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK movie where David Ferrie is losing his mind, and he’s talking about how they wanted to humiliate Castro by making his beard fall off.
JR: Right. Right, right, right. And the greatest irony to me was that on November 22nd, 1963, the CIA was meeting in Paris with a leading Cuban exile who had been very close to Castro. And we’re getting him to yet one more time to plan to kill Castro. And when the CIA officers came out of the meeting in Paris, they learned that John Kennedy had been assassinated that day.
So there was a whole– It went on for years. It started in the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s and continued into the sixties, and it never worked. I have a feeling, I have a belief that the scheme they tried with the mafia was really the one that they did the most work on, and I believe that it was undermined by Santo Trafficante, the head of the Florida mob, who had previously run casinos in Cuba. And I believe that he was playing a double game, and wanted to get back into Cuba under Castro’s regime. And so, I think he made sure that nothing ever came of the plots.
TR: Yeah, it’s entire possible. Santo Trafficante, a lot of people ran casinos in Havana who worked in the Mafia, so it wasn’t crazy to ask them for information, but to ask them to kill a foreign leader, that’s a step too far. But Santo Trafficante was locked up in Cuba, because a lot of these other mob bosses left, but Trafficante stayed. He said, I’m going to stick it out, see what happens. He got thrown in jail, and he’s mysteriously let out of jail, and then he goes back to America. So, that’s ample opportunity for him to have been turned as a double agent.
JS: Jim, there’s also the assassination of the Congolese leader, Patrice Lumumba
News Clip: Arrest, ill treatment, imprisonment, death. Such was the fate of Patrice Lumumba. And it has been the signal for violent reactions in many parts of the world. First in the United Nations itself, where the Security Council meeting was violently interrupted.
And the CIA had denied — and continues to deny — its involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. But talk, also, about the probe into that assassination by the Church Committee.
JR: Yeah, I think one of the things that became clear is that the CIA’s role in the Lumumba assassination is much more significant than they’ve ever admitted. They were directly involved in trying to kill Lumumba, they had hitmen in Congo trying to kill him. The CIA station was given poison to try to kill him. And then when the local opponents of Lumumba, working with the Belgians, did try to capture him, the CIA station chief was providing them information on Lumumba’s whereabouts. And so, I think they were much more directly involved than they ever wanted to admit, and I think they knew exactly what was going on, and they were very happy that he was murdered by some breakaway separatists and the Belgian authorities.
TR: One of the interesting things is that Frank Church and his wife Bethine actually went to Congo, they were there right after he’d been captured, so they had a front row seat for how this all went down, but they were being lied to by the State Department and the CIA. Well, not the CIA, but they were being lied to by the State Department, because they were on a tour, actually, with Ted Kennedy back in 1960 when this is going on.
And the CIA station chief there took his own initiative, and gave bribe money to help Joseph Mobutu stage a coup in the first place. So, the whole reason that Patrice Lumumba got overthrown two months after the nation became independent is because of the CIA Because they said, we don’t like you, go away, and they proceeded to try to kill him, because he was very charismatic, and they were worried he could still be a threat.
JS: Jim, on a domestic level, how much information came out about the extent of domestic spying that the CIA was doing on anti-war groups, on Black nationalist groups, on activist organizations? What kind of information was exposed for the public to understand during the course of the Church Committee investigations about domestic spying by the CIA?
JR: Quite a bit was public because, as I said, Sy Hersh had broken the story to begin with, and so a lot of it was becoming public. The problem they had though was that Church decided, because he had a reputation as a kind of a publicity hound, he was very concerned about making sure that a lot of their hearings were closed to the public, because he wanted to prove to Congress and to the CIA that they could avoid too many leaks and disclosures.
And so, a big chunk of their initial investigation was behind closed doors. And that led to some media coverage – which was partial, and incremental, and sometimes misleading – of what they were actually finding and what they were actually doing. Which is a real lesson as a journalist, to see what somebody’s actually doing versus what was in the coverage at the time.
JS: Well, this why I’m asking you, because you had journalists breaking this story at a time that was coinciding with Congressional bodies, including in the Senate, that have the power to subpoena people, that have the ability to get primary players in front of not just the senators, but in front of the cameras. And it seems, in retrospect, it’s easy to pick at these things, but it seems like there also were a lot of really blown opportunities during the course of the Church Committee hearings.
I mean, I’m saying this with the caveat that hindsight is 20/20, and it’s very easy to pick this stuff apart, and, you know, you have witnesses mysteriously dying. But when I read about the Church Committee, and I read transcripts, and I watch hearings, I always am left with this sense that, yes, a lot came to the forefront. There were important revelations, but it seems as though the CIA managed to kind of, like the Scooby-Doo mysteries, in a way, like the opposite of a Scooby Doo mystery, they still sort of got away with it. That’s my sense.
JR: Yeah. I mean, there were a lot of people who thought that at the time. That was one of the criticisms of the Church Committee at the time, was that they were letting the CIA go. And, to some degree, that’s true. They were constantly battling or trying to balance between gaining access to information and how hard to fight to get even more information. And Church decided, he had a committee that he was trying to continue to make sure that it was bipartisan. And one of the most important things for him was to negotiate access to documents from the White House and the CIA. And, to do that, he had to have a bipartisan approach.
And so, John Tower, who was the ranking Republican on the committee, would go with Church to the Ford White House, and push for access to documents. But Church knew that he couldn’t push too far if he wanted to continue to get Republican support on the committee. And he thought many times about when to subpoena people and when not to subpoena documents or individuals. And he knew that every time he would push for a subpoena, that would lead to a lengthy delay.
And so, he tried to avoid seeking subpoenas, and tried to get cooperation. And the result was that there were a number of times when he didn’t push as hard as he could. And probably the most important area that that was true on was in covert action.
The CIA really pushed back hard on the Church Committee’s desire to investigate a whole number of covert action operations that had been conducted. And, as a result, Church agreed to just do one investigation that would become public of covert action, and that was Chile. And they did, I think, four or five other covert action investigations, but did not write about them publicly.
So, it was a real balancing act for Church, how far to push. Because the ultimate goal he had, really, was to convince both the government, the administration, and Congress, that it would be okay to set up permanent intelligence oversight committees. And so, he wanted to prove that it could be done in a way that could be cooperative and collaborative. Really, his major objective was the creation of a permanent senate intelligence committee, and it could only be done if there was some sense of bipartisan collaboration.
JS: And, in a way, the kind of end to this story is the creation of those committees. But also, out of the rubble of parts of the CIA’s reputation, you have the ascent of one George H.W. Bush to become director of the CIA. Talk about Bush’s rise to power and how Frank Church responded.
JR: Yeah. That, to me, that’s one of the worst. You know, to learn about what Bush really did, it shows you the ruthlessness of the Bush family, and how tainted their political legacy really is.
As I said earlier, Colby was fired in the fall of 1975, because he had cooperated too much with Church, and his replacement was George Herbert Walker Bush, the future president. He was, at the time, U.S. envoy to China, and had previously been the head of the Republican National Committee during Watergate. And so, had been a major apologist for Richard Nixon during Watergate.
And it was clear to Church that Nixon was chosen by Ford to be the opposite of Colby, to be someone who is a partisan who would fight back against Church, and fight back against the efforts at disclosure and oversight. And so, Church fought against Bush’s nomination and confirmation, and he was just beginning to fight Bush’s confirmation when the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, was assassinated. And Bush and Ford and the CIA, all immediately exploited Welch’s murder to try to convince the American public that it was the disclosures of the Church Committee that led to Welch’s murder, and that Frank Church couldn’t be trusted, and it was all an effort to discredit Church and get Bush confirmed.
TR: People had repeatedly warned Welsh when he got to Greece — he was Station Chief in Greece — people repeatedly warned him, hey, you have to be more careful. Everyone knows this mansion that the CIA station chief has been living in. So, Welsh wasn’t careful, and there was nothing to do with the Church Committee, but it was definitely useful for them to exploit.
JS: And also, you know, Jim, you also are revealing new information, you have a piece that’s going to be coming out soon in The Intercept about this exact episode that you’re talking about in Greece. But it wasn’t just that Frank Church was being smeared, it was also the CIA whistleblower Philip Agee, who was blamed, and saying that Agee was responsible for the death of the CIA station chief in Athens and elsewhere. And, in fact, I believe it was Barbara Bush — George H.W. Bush’s wife — in her memoir actually said that Phil Agee was responsible for the death. And then she had to retract it, they had to take it out of subsequent publication.
But, for people that followed this history, this is probably one of the most important nuggets that you’re bringing to light in your book, is it gives lie to a multi-generational smear campaign against Frank Church and the late Phil Agee.
JR: Right, yeah. What I found, the most amazing thing, was how long this coverup has been going on. It’s really, as you say, a 50-year coverup of the truth about the Welch murder, and the CIA and the government has continued this lie that somehow the Church Committee’s disclosures led to Richard Welch’s murder. And I think it’s really one of the first examples of the weaponization of intelligence for political purposes.
It was, in fact, Greek intelligence leaked his name to the Greek press because they were mad at the United States for its policies on Cyprus. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the Church Committee. And I interviewed the Deputy Station Chief for the CIA in Athens, who was Deputy Station Chief at that time, who said that it was obvious that the KYP, the Greek Intelligence Service, had leaked Welch’s name to the Greek press. And he reported that back to Washington, but people ignored that in Washington. They wanted to use this to score political points against Frank Church.
JS: We only have a couple of minutes left, but I want to tie up some of these loose ends here. We were talking about the rise of George H.W. Bush and, you know, you state pretty clearly the significance that you would assign to the Church Committee reigning in the CIA for its abuses. At the same time, Jim, even though you do have these CIA oversight bodies in the form of the United States Senate, I think you couldn’t argue with this fact, that, in general, the vibe of the Senate toward the CIA, the vibe of most senators toward the CIA and these committees is, it’s a pretty pro-CIA operation until it becomes politically untenable or impossible to start actually aggressively going after the CIA.
And part of what I want to end on — and we can also talk about Jim Jordan, and their committee, and the kind of grifter train that the Trumpist movement has parked in Washington under the guise of taking on imperial Washington — but I want to talk a little bit about the period that we’re living in now that came after the Church Committee, where you do actually have these bodies that are supposed to be able to investigate the CIA. And yet we have the CIA running an extrajudicial kidnapping program, a torture program, black sites set up across the world, disinformation campaigns, not only being waged against foreign adversaries, but against the U.S. public, culminating with Barack Obama’s CIA director John Brennan overseeing an operation to spy on United States Senate torture investigators.
So, you know, on the one hand you’re painting, I think, an accurate picture of the legacy of Frank Church. And, on the other hand, you’ve got to grapple with the fact that the CIA has continued to engage in the same kinds of abuses that it did when it didn’t have anyone supposedly guarding the henhouse.
JR: Right. No, that’s one of the complicating factors, and you’re absolutely right. I guess the way I would describe my thinking on this was that, prior to 1975 and the Church Committee, the CIA really could get away with anything. There were no rules, even for them to violate; they could do whatever the hell they wanted. After 1975, and after the Church Committee, there were rules. You could violate them, and it would be up to the Justice Department or Congress to actually call you on it, but there were rules, there was a rule of law that they were supposed to be following.
They have continually and egregiously violated those rules over the years, but the difference is that there are now rules. There were no rules before. And I believe, you know, today we have what I would call a conspiracy theory, that there is a deep state. I don’t believe there is a deep state. There is a military industrial intelligence complex that is deeply rooted in the U.S. national security apparatus, but it is not the deep state of Trump imagination. And I think the reason we don’t have a deep state today is because of the Church Committee, because Frank Church and the Church Committee created rules and brought some standards for the actions of the intelligence community. They constantly abuse them, and constantly violate them, but those rules now exist, so that we can have some form of accountability at some points.
And so, it’s deeply flawed, but those rules now exist, and I think that’s the ultimate legacy of the Church Committee.
JS: Final subject on all of this: you now have this really insane dynamic in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, you have the Republican Party, which has experienced a split. You know, it still is unified on most issues; we should put that out there right now, front and center. But on the issues we’re talking about here, there is an interesting split that’s taken place in the Republican Party. And a lot of this played out in a very public way when Kevin McCarthy was trying to consolidate his support to take control of the House speakership earlier this year. And you had Matt Gaetz and other members of, let’s just say, the Trumpist political movement wielding their power and getting really serious concessions from McCarthy as a result of holding up his speakership.
But you have Jim Jordan now — who’s one of the biggest charlatans in Washington — presiding over a committee that he and his supporters are likening to the Church Committee. And, you know, it’s possible, probably likely that there will be relevant publicly helpful facts that come out; it would be hard not to, because it’s Washington, D.C. But the general tenor of these investigations that they’re running is conspiracy theories, wackadoodle, insane, racist diatribes, totally insane relationship to facts and truth, and the level of seriousness of many of the issues that they’re taking on just don’t rise to the level of a congressional investigation in many cases, not to mention the comparisons to Frank Church.
Now, I know, Jim, you could probably talk for an hour about this subject, but I just want to get you on this one narrow question of people who compare what this Jim Jordan committee is doing to what Frank Church and his colleagues were taking on in 1975 with their investigation.
JR: Yeah, it’s a ridiculous comparison, as you say. I mean, it’s night and day. It’s, I don’t understand — well, I guess I do understand — why Republicans have descended into conspiracy theory world, and how they have kind of lost touch with reality. But the view that they have of the intelligence community is dangerous, because they see it now as nothing more than a political weapon to be used or abused, one way or the other. And it’s kind of frightening to think that people like this could have any real power in America.
You know, they want to prove weird theories about their political enemies, and that’s just not what the Church Committee was about. I think one of the great things about the Church Committee was how deeply rooted in facts, and evidence, and documents, that their investigation was, and how thoroughly they sought to prove every point that that they made. And it’s really, I think, probably the greatest congressional investigation in modern history, and for Jordan to compare what he’s doing to the Church Committee is ridiculous.
TR: One of the things I think about Jordan’s committee that makes it a stark contrast to the Church Committee is that the Church Committee was as successful as it was because it was so bipartisan. This is one of the most refreshing things about the book that you’re going to see throughout, is just how different party politics were back then. I mean, Barry Goldwater was on the Church Committee. He was, like, the granddaddy of American conservatism. Everyone we spoke with said that he was polite and professional to work with, which is rare these days, a little bit. And, you know, they did their job. They weren’t obstructionist.
Embarrassing things came out about the Kennedys during the committee, and the Democrats went along with it, and shared it, and they got their job done. And that’s a very refreshing thing that you see in the book that kind of contrasts with today. And that’s why I’m not very optimistic for Jim Jordan’s prospects, is because, you know, Congress is not as professional as it used to be in Frank Church’s time.
JS: You know, one — I didn’t want to go on with this – but I did want to just throw one other perspective at you about this question. I mean, I can spend all day blasting Jim Jordan and the Republicans and that specific committee. In recent episodes of this show, I’ve also alluded to my views on that.
But, on the other side, though, I do think — and I’m very curious what you think of this — I think that what we’ve seen in the “Trump broke a lot of people’s brains” era that we’re in, I think that we’re seeing the Democrats becoming quite deferential to these institutions, probably in large part because of the perception that Trump and the Republicans are trying to destroy them. Political alignments are shifting right now in the United States; in the broader public, certainly, and in Washington, D.C. But you did have a bunch of egg on the faces of former intelligence officials at key moments during the Trump Russia stuff.
It’s not to say that they were always wrong, but there were some pretty high profile mistakes, blunders, maybe intentional disinformation that was put out there by former, very senior, intelligence officials. And my perspective on that is that the Democrats and these former CIA people, they’re making a huge mistake. They’re making a bunch of own-goals when they stick their next way out and cry Russia disinformation when it turns out not to be. It’s not that there isn’t Russian disinformation, but, I mean, Jim, you have to concede, there have been some pretty high profile fuckups, if you want to be generous about it, with former intelligence officials signing letters making assertions that turn out not to be true.
JR: Yeah. And I think, to me, I guess I would step back and think, you know, you and I have experienced the War on Terror, beginning with 9/11. And 9/11 really transformed the intelligence community into something that it really wasn’t in the decades prior to that. It became a warfighting killing machine, targeting individuals, and that really transformed the nature of the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community, and brought in a whole new era in which the CIA and the intelligence community became known for killing individual people.
Then, the War on Terror has kind of faded, and what we’re left with in this kind of quasi-peace period is the CIA becoming a political weapon for use by both sides. And so, intelligence information today is really only important for getting headlines for one side or the other. And so, we’ve gone from this weird period where the CIA had transformed itself into a killing machine, and suddenly becomes a political weapon.
And so, I think the views, the American view – or at least, I think, a lot of people’s views – of what is the CIA today, what is U.S. intelligence today, is now seen as something of a political entity, in a way that it wasn’t before. And I think you’re right. I think that’s dangerous for everybody on all sides, because it’s not what it’s there for. Just to have, you know, selectively leaked intelligence reports used for political effect by whoever wants to have it.
I mean, certainly there’s always been leaks, and I’m not opposed, I like leaks. But, at the same time, it’s odd to see how intelligence reports are touted by pundits and people on Twitter more than they are by anybody else.
JS: On that note, we have to leave it there.
James Risen is a Senior National Security Correspondent for The Intercept. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, he is the author of several books. Thomas Risen has spent years reporting on U.S. politics and national security. He currently works as an aviation journalist.
Thanks you both for being with us here on Intercepted.
JR: Thanks. Thanks for having us.
TR: Have a great day, thanks.
JS: James and Thomas Risen are authors of the new book, “The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys — and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy.”
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