Reportage Prompting Establishment of Church Committee

Seymour Hersh-IPS.jpgBy James F. Tracy

On December 22, 1974 the New York Times carried on its front page “Huge CIA Operation Reported in US Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years,” by Seymour Hersh. The piece chronicled the rampant abuses and crimes committed by the Central Intelligence Agency against the American citizenry. “An extensive investigation by the New York Times,” Hersh wrote, “has established that intelligence files on at least 10,000 American citizens were maintained by a special unit of the C.I.A. that was reporting directly to [then Director] Richard Helms.”

Later deemed “the son of Watergate,” by the Times, and at least as significant as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Washington Post reportage that aided in bringing down the Nixon administration, Hersh pressed the issue of CIA overreach with several followup articles reporting on outrage and calls for explanation from Capitol Hill.[1]

The series of stories resulted in concerted Congressional investigation of the federal intelligence community through establishment of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, otherwise known as the “Church Committee,” overseen by Idaho Senator Frank Church. A central finding was that the CIA had violated its charter by interceding in the Constitutionally-protected private affairs of Americans—something now routinely done by an alphabet soup of agencies, all under the guise of “fighting terrorism.”

The hearings also extended to crimes committed by domestic government agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service. In addition to the CIA’s plots to assassinate leaders abroad while disrupting the lawful activities of citizens at home, “the IRS had maintained for nearly four years a unit—the Special Services Staff—whose purpose was to investigate political activists,” political scientist Loch K. Johnson observes.

The SSS compiled a secret “watch list” of some eleven thousand individuals and groups classified as “extremist” or “radical.” Among the names of the list were columnist Joseph Alsop; singer and antiwar activist Joan Baez; writers Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer; rock star James Brown; performer Sammy Davis Jr.; former United States Senator James Goodell (Republican, New York) and Ernest Gruening (Democrat, Alaska); civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Coretta King; actress Shirley M[a]cLaine; the American Library Association; the American Civil Liberties Union; the NAACP; Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines; and hundreds of others.[2]

The revelations emerging from this important era of governmental reform served to temper the Agency’s behavior, albeit briefly, yet they could scarcely limit the continued growth of the national security state, particularly in the longer term. Nor can the episode be solely attributable to a period where elite journalists and news outlets were any less sycophantic to establishment power than they are today. As historian Kathryn Omlstead notes, media barons were concerned that reportage along the lines of Woodward, Bernstein, or Hersh, would “damage the legitimacy and credibility of their industry.” Further, “many elite reporters did not seem to want to believe that Hersh’s reporting was accurate,” instead “preferr[ing] to trust the ‘honorable men’ of the CIA rather than their colleagues.”[3]

The episode is nevertheless redolent of more recent actions by journalists such as Glenn Greenwald and intelligence whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, both of whom have found it necessary to leave their countries for fear of reprisals by their own government. Indeed, one may ask themselves whether the New York Times and its prestigious journalistic peers would deem such investigative reportage on similar government crimes and wrongdoing “fit to print,” especially in light of the paper’s complicity in uncritically “selling” 9/11, the Iraq War, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombings to the American people. Moreover, would any US congressional leaders today see fit to act so forcefully on such malfeasance?


[1] Kathryn Olmstead, “‘An American Conspiracy,’ The Post-Watergate Press and the CIA,” Journalism History 19 (Summer 1993): 51-58.

[2] Loch K. Johnson, A Season of Inquiry: The Senate Intelligence Investigation, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1985.

[3] Olmstead, “‘An American Conspiracy.’” See also Olmstead, Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.