On January 27, 1975, when it had emerged that the intelligence community was spying on American citizens at home and destabilizing foreign governments abroad, the United States Senate established what would later be referred to as the Church Committee. The special investigative body, led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, would delve into every dark corner of the intelligence business with three objectives: shedding light on abuses that were committed in the past, preventing other abuses from occurring and generating a movement that would coerce the government into reorganizing America’s intelligence agencies.
By the time the Church Committee concluded its report in May the following year — a report aided by eight hundred witnesses, millions of previously classified documents and hundreds of hearings — the findings were so shocking to ordinary Americans that President Gerald R. Ford issued a wide-ranging executive order to change the way the intelligence community did its work. The Central Intelligence Agency was no longer authorized to plan and conduct assassinations of political leaders in other countries; the Federal Bureau of Investigation was prohibited from opening the mail of ordinary Americans to monitor their activity; planting government agents in protest movements to influence their behavior was now considered taboo; and electronic surveillance against Americans could only occur with the explicit approval of the attorney general.
Congress also used the Church Committee report as justification for creating a permanent select committee overseeing the activities of the intelligence community, a degree of legislative involvement that, at the time, was opposed by the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency as overt interference in their affairs.
Nearly forty years later, the CIA is once again in Congress’ crosshairs. After a five-year, $40 million dollar study reviewing the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program of suspected terrorists — a program that President Barack Obama abolished during his first week in office — the CIA leadership is experiencing perhaps its worst period of negative press since the mid 1970s.
The revelations embodied in the Senate report, including the use of waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and prolonged stress positions on detainees, took many Americans by surprise. The study was so potentially damaging to the agency’s reputation that CIA director John Brennan gave a news conference in which he rebutted the Senate committee’s main conclusions — a rare move for the leader of one of the world’s most secretive spy services.
Yet, although the CIA has been forced to deal with several weeks of bad press coverage, there is no indication that the Senate committee report released in early December will prompt significant reform inside the agency’s ranks. As Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times reported last weekend, the study “is unlikely to significantly change the role the CIA now plays in running America’s secret wars.”
Indeed, rightly or wrongly, the CIA will continue to receive the benefit of the doubt from most Americans, even if mistakes were made.
One only needs to look at the same Senate report to see how bullish the American public has become since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While 49 percent of Americans considers the CIA’s interrogation of terrorist suspects to be torture, 53 percent of those polled by The Washington Post and CBS News believes enhanced interrogation techniques produce intelligence that would not normally be produced through other means.
In its own survey, the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Americans thought the CIA’s methods justified with only 29 percent saying they weren’t.
From the polls it seems Americans are willing to back their intelligence services if it means keeping the country safe — a general trend of public support that the CIA, FBI and NSA did not experience when the Church Committee was set up.
This is not only about waterboarding and sleep deprivation. The CIA receives strong public support on issues ranging from the use of drones to the multiyear effort to locate and kill Al Qaeda’s former leader, Osama bin Laden. Sending unmanned aerial vehicles into another country to shoot a terrorist from the sky is an especially controversial and divisive topic in much of the rest of the world. Americans, however, largely see the tactic as a useful and effective way to protect their nation from attack, degrade the leadership capability of terrorist organizations and send a message to terrorists around the world that the United States has a vast intelligence arsenal as its disposal.
This support is so widespread that Gallup registered a whopping 65 percent approval for using airstrikes in other countries to go after individual terrorists.
With numbers like these, the CIA leadership can comfortably operate in the belief that the vast majority of American citizens recognizes how difficult its job is. Defended by an administration that has used the CIA to prosecute its war against Islamic terrorist organizations, backed by congressional Republicans who view the intelligence community as America’s first line of defense and popular with more Americans than not, the agency can look toward the future without fear of reliving the 1970s.
Like the Church Committee, the members and staff of the Senate Select Committee report on enhanced interrogation hoped their efforts would result in a national discussion about the proper balance between liberty and security. Judging from the polls, though, the average American still puts his faith in the men and women of the clandestine services.