In a letter sent to President Obama and members of Congress, former members and staff of the Church Committee on intelligence said that the revelations of the NSA activities have caused “a crisis of public confidence” and encouraged the formation of a new committee to undertake “significant and public reexamination of intelligence community practices”.
Although it may seem like the NSA’s activities have only recently come under public scrutiny, the agency first was dragged into the light in 1975 when reports surfaced that for decades it had had secret agreements with telegram companies to get copies of Americans’ international communications. The Church committee, formally known as the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, was formed to investigate the NSA’s methods and produced a report that took the agency to task for overstepping its bounds and expanding programs well beyond their initial scope.
“We have seen a consistent pattern in which programs initiated with limited goals, such as preventing criminal violence or identifying foreign spies, were expanded to what witnesses characterized as ‘vacuum cleaners,’ weeping in information about lawful activities of American citizens. The tendency of intelligence activities to expand beyond their initial scope is a theme, which runs through every aspect of our investigative findings,” the committee’s final report said.
In the letter sent Monday to Obama and Congress, several former advisers to and members of the Church committee, including the former chief counsel, said that the current situation involving the NSA bears striking resemblances to the one in 1975 and that the scope of what the NSA is doing today is orders of magnitude larger than what was happening nearly 40 years ago.
“The need for another thorough, independent, and public congressional investigation of intelligence activity practices that affect the rights of Americans is apparent. There is a crisis of public confidence. Misleading statements by agency officials to Congress, the courts, and the public have undermined public trust in the intelligence community and in the capacity for the branches of government to provide meaningful oversight,” the letter says.
“The scale of domestic communications surveillance the NSA engages in today dwarfs the programs revealed by the Church Committee. Indeed, 30 years ago, the NSA’s surveillance practices raised similar concerns as those today.”
Signed by 15 former advisers and members of the committee, including Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., the lead counsel for the committee, the letter is addressed to Obama, Congress and the American public.
The findings of the Church committee eventually led to a number of changes in the way that intelligence agencies operated and the checks that were put in place to oversee their activities. One result was the formation of the permanent intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and another was the passing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA is one of the authorities that the NSA relies upon in order to conduct its surveillance operations, specifically the phone metadata program that was the first one revealed last year by Edward Snowden.
The former members of the Church Committee said that a new committee to oversee and investigate the NSA’s activities is a must if the American public is to ever have any trust in the agency and the intelligence community as a whole again.
“As former members and staff of the Church Committee we can authoritatively say: the erosion of public trust currently facing our intelligence community is not novel, nor is its solution. A Church Committee for the 21st Century—a special congressional investigatory committee that undertakes a significant and public reexamination of intelligence community practices that affect the rights of Americans and the laws governing those actions—is urgently needed. Nothing less than the confidence of the American public in our intelligence agencies and, indeed, the federal government, is at stake,” the letter says.