For those of us old enough to remember it, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee for its chair, Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, marked a watershed moment in American politics.
Charged with investigating abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies, the committee rocked the nation and the globe with its reports of epic wrongdoing by the CIA, NSA, and the FBI.
The committee investigated on a massive and illegal mail-opening operation and secret drug experiments on American citizens by the CIA, the FBI’s illegal efforts to thwart the civil rights movement [including efforts to smear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and incite murderous violence among black radicals], and the illegal use of the NSA to monitor prominent activists opposed to the Vietnam war.
The committee’s efforts lead to the first major reforms to the nation’s massive spy apparatus in the form of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, banning mass surveillance of American citizens.
Directing the investigative efforts was a notable staff, headed by Frederick A.O. Scwharz Jr., a Harvard-educated lawyer and the great-grandson of the founder of New York City’s most famous toy store.
And now Schwarz, who now serves as chief counsel for New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, and other members of the Church Committee staff have issued a call for the Obama Administration to negotiate a plea bargain with America’s most famous whistleblower, who, they say, has done us all a great service.
From the Brennan Center for Justice:
As former professional staff members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities [the “Church Committee”], we are writing to urge that the White House and the Justice Department negotiate a settlement of the charges against Edward Snowden that both sides can accept.
There is no question that Edward Snowden’s disclosures led to public awareness which stimulated reform. Whether or not these clear benefits to the country merit a pardon, they surely do counsel for leniency.
In the American political system, bipartisan government reforms are generally regarded as the most legitimate and durable. Recently, however, our government has all but stopped making bipartisan reforms. There is one big exception: the surveillance reforms inspired by Edward Snowden’s revelations.
It was Snowden who supplied journalists with evidence that our government had, for many years, been collecting information about the domestic phone calls of millions of Americans. As a result, a bipartisan coalition in Congress formed to amend the Patriot Act to prohibit the practice. In the Senate, Mike Lee, a conservative Republican from Utah, joined with Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Vermont, to sponsor the reform. In the House, the move toward reform started with two Michigan Congressmen, Justin Amash, a junior Tea Party Republican from Grand Rapids, and John Conyers, a veteran liberal Democrat from Detroit. Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a primary author of the Patriot Act and its extensions, also backed the reforms saying he and his colleagues had not intended to permit the NSA’s widespread scooping up of data about Americans’ communications.
It was also Snowden’s material that showed the extent to which the National Security Agency intercepts and filters international electronic communications from undersea fiber optic cables, and taps internal links connecting data centers for Internet companies like Yahoo! and Google. All this was in pursuit of former NSA Director Keith Alexander’s directive to “collect it all.” Untold millions of Americans’ communications are swept up in these programs, where they are available for perusal by the FBI and CIA through what has become known as the “backdoor” search loophole. Republican Reps. Ted Poe and Tom Massie have joined with Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren in sponsoring legislation to ban this practice.
Snowden’s documents also revealed the broad scope of NSA spying on foreigners including eavesdropping on close allies in addition to potential adversaries like Russia and China. While some have argued that leaking such “legal” surveillance activities disqualifies Snowden from any mercy, President Barack Obama has acknowledged that stronger controls were necessary. He implemented the first-ever reforms to afford privacy protection for foreigners from surveillance unless it is necessary to protect our national security.
The NSA, CIA, and Defense Department maintain that harm resulted from the disclosures, particularly with respect to our efforts overseas, where they say relationships with intelligence partners have been damaged and our adversaries may know more about our capabilities. No one is asking that these claims be ignored, only that they be checked, and then weighed against the benefits.
America clearly did benefit from Snowden’s disclosures. Former Attorney-General Eric Holder said that Snowden “performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.” President Obama has said that the public debate regarding surveillance and accountability that Snowden generated “will make us stronger.” The President also issued an executive order recognizing that foreigners have privacy interests –– an acknowledgement no previous President had ever made –– and also asked the intelligence community to find ways to provide foreigners with some protections previously provided only to Americans.
Without Snowden, it would have been decades, if ever, until Americans learned what intelligence agencies acting in our name had been up to. We know first hand that lack of disclosure can cause just as many, if not more, harms to the nation than disclosure. When intelligence agencies operate in the dark, they often have gone too far in trampling on the legitimate rights of law-abiding Americans and damaging our reputation internationally. We saw this repeated time and time again when serving as staff members for the U.S. Senate Select Committee, known as the Church Committee, that in 1975-76 conducted the most extensive bipartisan investigation of a government’s secret activities ever, in this country or elsewhere.