The fortieth anniversary of the Church Committee on Jan. 27 triggered a call for new Congressional hearings on America’s intelligence agencies by seventeen former committee staff members. The United States Senate created the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations which became known as the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church. The Church Committee hearings and reports provided the only genuine Congressional oversight of the intelligence apparatus of the United States during the twentieth century but its work was cut short after fourteen reports were issued.
The Church Committee tackled the assassination of President John Kennedy, a myriad of abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency, Watergate misdeeds, and COINTELPRO crimes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 and did not have to face public disclosure before the committee of the FBI’s massive, clandestine counterintelligence program.
President Gerald Ford tried to derail the Church Committee by establishing his own Rockefeller Commission but Ford’s ploy did not stop determined legislators. The Church Committee’s final report was issued on April 29, 1976 and closed its door on further public inquiry into the government’s dirty secrets. The committee lost momentum for disclosure after the Dec. 25, 1975 murder of CIA agent Richard Welch, whose death some blamed on the committee’s exposes.
Most of the information now known about COINTELPRO comes from two sources, the Freedom of Information Act and the Church Committee. The scope and magnitude of COINTELPRO far exceeded other abuses, such as Watergate, which gained more public attention.
The former Church Committee staff members have now issued a report through the Brennan Center for Justice calling for Congress to conduct a “comprehensive evaluation” of American spying. “Congress needs to demonstrate its ability to check executive branch overreach across the multiple programs and agencies, re-establish democratic controls over intelligence policies and ensure public accountability of intelligence practices,” said the report.
The former committee staff complain about current excesses by the intelligence community and focus their call for a new oversight panel on events since the Church Committee adjourned. However, little has been said in Washington, D.C. about the unfinished business of the original committee, which includes political prisoners convicted in COINTELPRO-tainted state court trials.
A prime example of a state trial manipulated by federal agents is the case of the Omaha Two, Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa, formerly David Rice. The men were leaders of a Black Panther affiliate group in Omaha and convicted after a controversial trial for the murder of a policeman. Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division were involved in the case.
The FBI misdeeds in the Omaha Two case included withholding a laboratory report on the identity of an anonymous caller who lured the policeman to his death. The role of ATF is less well documented, however, based on a newspaper photo it appears as though someone within ATF dusted Mondo’s pants with dynamite particles after he surrendered.
If Congress fails to take up the issue of COINTELPRO prisoners, imprisoned for over four decades, and if President Barack Obama continues to ignore the inmates’ plight, then the United Nations will have much to examine later this year when United States compliance with human rights treaties comes under periodic review.