U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan launched a House Judiciary subcommittee this month to look into the “weaponization” of the federal government. The Ohio Republican says the examination of various investigations is modeled after the much-admired, bipartisan Church Committee of the mid-1970s (named after its chair, Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho). The committee was created in the wake of New York Times stories on intelligence abuses by the CIA targeting American dissidents. It uncovered decades of intelligence and Civil Rights abuses by the FBI, CIA, and the NSA, and led to sweeping oversight reforms.
In response to Jordan’s nod to the Church Committee, more than two dozen former staff members of the committee sent Jordan a letter on Feb. 15 counseling him to avoid any hint of partisanship. To understand why the group offered this advice, the Harvard Gazette spoke with Frederick “Fritz” A.O. Schwarz Jr. L.L.B. ’60, chief counsel for the Church Committee and one of the letter signers. He is now chief counsel for the office of the president at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Harvard Gazette: The Church Committee’s mandate was very broad and initially focused on the CIA. Did you or the committee have any expectations of what you might uncover?
Frederick “Fritz” A.O. Schwarz Jr.: I don’t think anybody had any idea how much we might find, how much misbehavior there had been in the U.S. government, in the agencies. Certainly, the CIA, but frankly, the FBI was the greatest problem that we uncovered and exposed. People would say, “Oh, you’re looking at intelligence — that means the CIA.” But I think the FBI was the more important problem because the CIA’s behavior was a problem for America’s reputation around the world, but the FBI’s behavior was undermining American democracy at home.
Gazette: Seymour Hersh’s reporting in The Times is seen as the impetus for the committee’s work, but were the CIA’s ties to the Nixon administration, which came out during Watergate, also a factor?
Schwarz: Everybody thought Nixon was the problem and what we exposed is that Nixon was a problem. Indeed, every president had misused the FBI and the CIA. That was ubiquitous, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and continuing with all the subsequent presidents. I think we showed that these problems, these improprieties, were not limited to one party or one president. They were very widespread.
Gazette: Was it a culture problem, because the FBI and CIA were used to operating in the shadows and without outside accountability, or a matter of executive power overreach?
Schwarz: It was both.
Gazette: The sheer number and scope of illegal and/or unethical activities these agencies engaged in really stunned the country at the time. Which surprised you or the committee most?
Schwarz: The things that surprised me the most were things the FBI was doing here in America. Some of the other things about CIA conduct abroad and so forth, I wouldn’t say really surprised me. They bothered me. But the thing that really surprised me was how, under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI had undermined democracy here at home [like the surveillance and tampering with U.S. mail and telegrams sent by law-abiding Americans and the COINTELPRO program, which targeted anti-war and Civil Rights groups]. The discoveries we made about the FBI’s attempts to injure Martin Luther King, including getting him to commit suicide, I think they were the most surprising things to the public and to the committee that we uncovered because no one had heard about it, and it was so dramatic and shocking.
Gazette: Many important reforms that are still with us came out of the committee’s work. Which, in your view, have held up over the years and which have not?
Schwarz: I think the cultural ones are the most important. I mean, it didn’t end misbehavior by the FBI, but it came to the attention of more people.
Gazette: And that public awareness served as an effective deterrent, at least for a while?
Schwarz: Yes, it was. And we provided much more detail about what had been done and how extensive it was.
Gazette: As a result of the committee’s findings, the U.S. Senate formed the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House soon followed suit with its own committee, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed requiring court approval to monitor individuals overseas. Are those still working as intended?
Schwarz: Nothing is ever as good as you hoped, but I think those reforms have held up pretty well.
Gazette: You were among 28 former committee staff and counsel who signed a letter to Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan last week stressing the importance that his subcommittee be fully bipartisan, have collaborative leadership that speaks in a unified voice, and be evidence-based in its fact-finding and reporting if it wants to emulate the Church Committee’s success. Why the letter?
Schwarz: Our recent comments were just out of a view that these are really important issues and [Jordan] better be careful not to push us in the wrong direction. We knew — I knew — what we had done was deal with very real problems and thought it was important that the country not forget the lessons that had come out of our work.
Gazette: If most Americans see this inquiry as illegitimate or purely performative, could that harm perceptions of not only the Committee’s legacy, but of intelligence oversight generally?
Schwarz: If they do a bad job, that would harm oversight. The people who are focusing on these issues make a real difference: [Walter] Fritz Mondale, who was on the Church Committee, but of course becomes vice president for Jimmy Carter and was an important figure in supporting and continuing to support the reforms and the ideas that underlay the work of the committee. Democratic Sen. Gary Hart from Colorado was on the subcommittee that investigated the assassination attempts to kill Fidel Castro. He was excellent. Hart and Texas Republican John Tower, for example, worked extremely well together. Gary Hart and John Tower would not be seen as people who would naturally work well together, but they did.