Uncanny Echoes of the NSA Debate From the 1970s

Before the Church Committee reports were released, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller described the shocking CIA abuses it chronicled as "not major."
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In June of 1975, the investigations into the CIA that would eventually be summarized in the Church Committee reports were already underway, spurred in large part by the shocking claims made in Seymour Hersh's journalism. But the public did not yet know the extent of CIA misdeeds. Many Americans were curious and suspicious. But confirmed facts were hard to come by, and some people thought that they shouldn't come out at all, as the New York Times reported:

Do even select members of Congress need to poke into every nook and cranny of the country's intelligence operations? This is the heart of the debate now raging in Washington in response to the report of the Rockefeller Commission on its investigation of the C.I.A. The same questions will underly the investigations of two Congressional committees, one in the House of Representatives, the other in the Senate. A substantial portion of the public believes that too much information on the intelligence agency has already come out. These critics say that every new publicized detail serves to weaken national security and unnecessarily expose intelligence operations to foreign governments.

Some members of the public were reassured that they had all the information they needed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whose characterizations are captured in this Associated Press article:

Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller said today his commission's five-month investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency has uncovered instances of wrongdoing but no pattern of widespread illegality. "There are things which are in contradiction to the statutes," Rockefeller said, "but in comparison to the total effort, they are not major."

The vice president told newsmen he doubted that either President Ford or the public would be shocked by the contents of the 350 page report which the 8-member commission will deliver to the President on Friday. "That doesn't mean that there haven't been things done that were wrong and ... we recommend extensive steps to be taken to prevent it in the future," Rockefeller said. "I think you're going to be surprised and pleased by the comprehensive nature of the material that's in here."

If all of this is sounding quite familiar, you won't be surprised to learn that the executive branch's characterizations were challenged as misleading by a senator pushing for transparency.

He wasn't able to give Americans all the details yet -- but his corrective message was perfectly clear. The New York Times reported:

Though he offers no details, Mr. Church has clearly known the worst of the assassination story for some time now and never hesitated to cast it in the gravest moral terms. When Vice President Rockefeller declared two weeks ago that the C.I.A.'s transgressions were "not major," Senator Church responded that his committee had hard evidence of assassination planning. "I don't regard murder plots as a minor matter," he said. "Ours is not a wicked country and we cannot abide a wicked government."

"You know, they're trying to compare it now with the idea of doing away with Hitler in the late thirties," he went on the other day. "But we were dealing here with little countries who couldn't possibly menace the United States, whose leaders were simply inconvenient -- nuisances! If we're going to lay claim to being a civilized country we must make certain that no agency of our government can be licensed to murder. The President of the United States cannot become a glorified godfather."

I don't think Church, an Idaho Democrat, would've liked President Obama much. But he sure would've liked Senator Ron Wyden. Of course, the fact that Church was right back then and Rockefeller was misleading Americans doesn't automatically mean the same is true today.

But if you're someone who can't conceive of senior executive-branch officials egregiously misleading Americans to obscure the extent of clandestine abuses -- or serious misdeeds, including illegal behavior and even premeditated murder, perpetrated by people laboring in secret to protect America -- know that they happened before. If you can't conceive of America being safe after an intrusive Congressional investigation of clandestine practices, or the executive branch and the press over-hyping the danger of such an inquiry, know that it happened before too.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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