Historiography – Church Committee Analysis
The Church Committee is known for its deep investigation into the alleged activities of American secret service agencies, particularly the FBI and CIA. Created in 1975, the Church Committee, also known as the Select Senate Committee, spent nearly 16 months investigating the activities in which the secret service had engaged over the recent decades, focusing mainly on domestic issues, as well as interactions with the Soviet Union and Latin America. Political scientist Loch Johnson, lawyer and war veteran Mark Vlasic, and political consultant Mark Falcoff, all examine the Church Committee and its purposes, while building their own arguments about its intent, legacy, and the secret service policies that were examined. These three scholars bring together their differing views about the formation of the Church Committee, but all discuss the importance of the examination of the secret service during the Cold War. Their arguments, taken together, encourage broader research about the Cold War and the consequences of the Church Committee on the relationship between Latin America and the United States.
Loch Johnson took an opinionated stance on the purpose and legacy of the Church Committee. Throughout his article, he praised the morality of the committee, even stating that while criticism of the secret service was typically seen as “unpatriotic,” the Church Committee still went to great lengths to uncover the secret misconduct of the CIA and FBI during the Cold War era. As he examined the findings and research developments of the Church Committee, Johnson repeatedly cited information of misconduct that the committee found, such as the misuse of tax information for political purposes, the monitoring of every international cable sent or received by Americans for almost 30 years, and the harassment of civil rights activists and Vietnam War dissidents. While the beginning of his article focused on domestic issues, he quickly delved into United States – Latin American relations. He cited information on the alleged assassination attempts on Fidel Castro and the interference in elections in Chile. Johnson is swift to criticize the actions of the secret service, and even attacks the very rules that define the limits of organizations like the CIA, and stated that these rules are “broadly worded and often ambiguous.” Johnson believed that the Church Committee was right in its investigation of the CIA and FBI, as these organizations threatened the accountability of a democratic government. In a dramatic statement that chastised the paranoia of the Second Red Scare, he said, “How could the intelligence community have strayed so far from its rightful duties into the heart of darkness?” It is clear from this statement and evidence given throughout Johnson’s article that he believed the Church Committee to be of noble purpose, and stated that its legacy served to push the conclusion that “the law works,” and in such cases that the CIA or FBI took illegal measures to meet ends, the government could have found solutions through legal means.
Mark Vlasic takes a different approach then Johnson, focusing specifically on the use of assassination as a legitimate policy within American history in terms of secret service. His argument stated that many presidents have used assassination attempts as means for political gain, perhaps to the point where it may not be considered immoral. With reference to the Church Committee, Vlasic identified the most infamous CIA operations being those of the assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. He followed this by stating that the Church Committee had uncovered a total of eight assassination attempts on the Cuban Prime Minister, and included the use of “poisoned cigars, poisoned drinks, poisoned pens, high-powered rifles, deadly bacterial powders, exploding seashells, and ‘other devices which strain the imagination.’” Vlasic stated another incident that involved Chile, when the CIA was found to have a connection to a coup d’état, during which General Schnieder was “accidentally” killed while the CIA attempted to capture the Chilean commander in chief. Vlasic also focuses on the alleged misconduct of the CIA and FBI, and goes on to confirm his belief that the actions of the secret service “outraged both Congress and the American public.” He also stated that since the investigations, every president has “endorsed the executive prohibition of assassination” as a legitimate policy for the government and secret service agencies. His analysis concluded that the Church Committee investigated and presented the alleged misconduct of American secret service agencies, and sought to place limitations on their abilities to carry out “legitimate” policies such as assassination.
Mark Falcoff wrote his article about assassination as an American policy as well, but his approach is slightly different. He began his article by stating that assassination could be seen as legitimate if one takes into consideration the lives that could be saved if a foreign leader was eliminated, and therefore a military campaign and war may not be necessary. While he explicitly stated that he does not support assassination as a “policy,” he does not deny it its place within American history. He later focused on the Select Senate Committee, stating that the committee investigated “CIA operations in the Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Vietnam.” He then criticized the use of assassination under the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, providing evidence that the operations wasted time and resources as they were untimely, almost never went according to plan, and more often than not resulted in “negative results for U.S. policy and interests.” Falcoff concluded that the investigations of the Church Committee were successful in exposing the lawlessness within United States secret service organizations, and suggested that policies such as assassination—that warrant the expenditure of “valuable political capital” and typically end in failure—should not be utilized as legitimate methods in the future.
The three aforementioned scholars all present different approaches to examining the actions of the Church Committee, but all come to roughly the same conclusion. All three recognized the overreaches of secret service agencies, which adds to the discussion about the morality of organizations that can operate beyond the boundaries of the government’s supervision. These scholars bring interesting thoughts and conclusions to the table about the legacy of the Church Committee, and provide information that provokes and encourages discussion about the actions of the CIA and FBI during the Cold War, and the consequences these actions would have for American public policy.
Falcoff, Mark. “Head-Hunting: Assassination As a Policy.” The National Interest, no. 24 (1991): 103-05.
Johnson, Loch K. “Congressional Supervision of America’s Secret Agencies: The Experience and Legacy of the Church Committee.” Public Administration Review 64, no. 1 (2004): 3-14.
Vlasic, Mark Vincent. “Cloak and Dagger Diplomacy: The U.S. and Assassination.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 1, no. 2 (2000): 95-104.