NEW YORK –- It’s no secret that the mid-20th century was a dirty time for U.S. intelligence agencies. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was waging personal wars through the government, infiltrating social movements and encouraging civil rights leaders to commit suicide. The CIA was working with the Mafia to assassinate foreign leaders, and had gotten into the business of overthrowing foreign governments, leaving a trail of fractured regimes through Africa and the Middle East.
Oversight? Man, those were the days.
“The whole climate of America was one that was worried about the government,” said Fritz Schwarz, a staffer on the legendary, 1970s-era Church Committee, the independent Senate commission that forced American spies to reckon with their excesses.
The Church Committee's permanent successor, the Senate Intelligence Committee, was built to serve as an omnipresent check on some the nation’s most secretive and historically corrupt agencies.
Waxing eloquently at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice on Thursday, Schwarz said it’s time for another overhaul.
Schwarz, joined by 17 other former Church Committee staff members and the Brennan Center’s Michael German, called for a comprehensive examination of the intelligence community -– including its congressional oversight.
“The Church Committee identified three main departures from our constitutional system of checks and balances that contributed to intelligence abuse," the group said in a report last week. "These included excessive executive power over intelligence matters, too much secrecy, and an inclination of some intelligence officials to avoid the rule of law. Congress needs to evaluate whether its current intelligence oversight structures and practices effectively meet the challenge of these potential departures from our founding principles.”
The last few years suggest Schwarz and his fellow oversight legends have a case. Leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have raised public concern over civil liberties, and the CIA is still dusting itself off after former Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) revealed the spies' misguided post-9/11 torture program.
But the current committee might not be the right one to tackle nonpartisan self-examination. With newly minted Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) waging a fiercely personal war with now- vice-chair Feinstein, the panel doesn’t seem up for the oversight job.
The Church Committee was successful, Schwarz said, because the need for intelligence oversight mostly transcended party lines or loyalty.
“The nonpartisan structure and the nonpartisan approach, certainly on the staff … the staff really thought of itself as nonpartisan,” Schwarz said.
Today's oversight, he said, is lacking.
“The committees have not been vigorous enough, and the administrations have been both much too anxious to keep things secret,” said Schwarz, using the recently released summary of the CIA torture report as an example. “It’s great that they came out with the report, but it’s terrible that it took so long. ... The committees weren’t tough enough on the CIA, and President Obama. He never was helpful in getting it out.”
It’s unclear how Washington will respond to the group’s calls for a new Church Committee. President Barack Obama's White House has done little to curb the use of secret laws and unchecked covert action, and the intelligence committees have developed a reputation as spies’ bedfellows rather than overseers.
But the stakes are high, Schwarz said. When the abuses become too great, the public will demand a new investigation.
“It’s not a matter of if,” he said.
CORRECTION: This article has been edited to correct Fritz Schwarz' name.