Presidents Can’t Use National Security Concerns as an Excuse to Spy on Critics

Until 40 years ago, American presidents regularly used surveillance powers for their own political ends. Watergate, of course, was perhaps the best-known example of such activity — and not coincidentally, it was also perhaps the last. In the wake of President Richard Nixon’s abuses of individual rights and government resources to enact political vengeance, a shocked American public demanded that Congress ensure that the president’s crimes could not be repeated.

In 1976, in a document known as the Church Committee Report (named after Democratic senator Frank Church), the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence delved into America’s far and recent past to tell a disturbing tale about the dangerous powers of the American presidency — powers whose abuse had led just years earlier to a full-blown constitutional crisis resulting in the impeachment and resignation of President Nixon.

The committee’s historic report is just as important today with the election of Donald Trump, who, when asked about the hack into the Democratic National Committee, replied, “I’d love to have that power.”

After a years-long investigation, the Church Committee concluded that “[e]ach administration from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s to Richard Nixon’s permitted, and sometimes encouraged, government agencies to handle essentially political intelligence.” Through the training of powerful surveillance resources intended to protect national security, “the system . . . undertook activities to counter, combat, disrupt, and sometimes destroy those who were perceived as enemies.”

Those so-called enemies surveilled by their own governments included Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Muhammed Ali, Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald, author Norman Mailer, and even a sitting senator, Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee. Most discussions of the Church Committee’s findings start with these figures, and for good reason.

But the committee’s report also found that more than 1 million other Americans, half of them termed “subversives,” had been unlawfully subjected to political intelligence as well. Not just leaders, but members, of various social movements — for women’s rights, for Native American sovereignty, against the Vietnam War — were targeted and spied on by their own governments in the interest of national security. The committee reported that law enforcement and “intelligence agencies ha[d] regularly collected information about personal and political activities irrelevant to any legitimate government interest,” and “invaded individual privacy and violated the rights of lawful assembly and political expression.”

This secret history appalled the committee, and all Americans heeded one of its central lessons: that while there will always be some conflict between “the inherent conflict between the government’s perceived need to conduct surveillance and the citizens’ constitutionally protected rights of privacy and dissent, . . . [i]t has become clear that if some lose their liberties unjustly, all may lose their liberties. . . . Only by looking at the broad scope of questionable activity over a long period can we realistically assess the potential dangers of intrusive government.”

It is also critical to recall how the government had (secretly) justified this surveillance to itself and to the thousands of agents, bureaucrats, and other government officials who either carried it out or abided it: by asserting that it was absolutely necessary to the survival of the nation. Here, for example, is how a J. Edgar Hoover–era commission report on government organization laid out the stakes:

Hoover era report snippet

Faced with these kinds of extreme claims, and with the rest of the facts laid bare in the Church Committee’s Report, Americans demanded and achieved institutional changes meant to rein in the dangers of unchecked executive-branch political intelligence, in effect deeming such intelligence un-American, once and for all. Those changes included the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee individualized warrant applications in national security cases.

But as my colleagues, Ash Gorski and Patrick Toomey, wrote this week, the executive’s power over government surveillance has seemingly outrun the reforms of the 1970s, and it is deeply susceptible to abuse at the direction of the president. In two months, the massive intelligence infrastructure erected since 9/11 will be handed to President Donald Trump, whose nominee to direct the Central Intelligence Agency appears eager to increase the government’s use of mass surveillance.

Today, we need to recall the Church Committee’s lessons more than ever. 

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And how did this all get started to begin with? That's right Mr. Obama a democrat


Yes, but it was started by his predecessor, who used the boogey-man bin-Laden (whom he never seriously tried to find) to justify spying on Americans without warrants that he could've gotten up to 72 hours after the fact. However, he just thumbed his nose at the Constitution, and did whatever he pleased, because he was the Imperial Cowboy from Texas.


Speak for yourself about bin Laden being "a boogeyman." Bin Laden almost single-handedly destroyed my family by having someone in it murdered while at work. Bin Laden never even knew who he killed and didn't give a sh*t but his operation destroyed the remains of our loved one and we've never gotten a confirmation of death via matching DNA samples. Burning jet fuel damaged the DNA structure in the bone fragments that were recovered so they can't make a match.
Bin Laden and his band of thugs aren't "boogeymen" to us, they're real monsters that reached into our lives and ripped our loved one out of it, without apology & never feeling any remorse for doing it. I'm glad they found him, I'm not even that broken up about what happened when they DID locate him. The finding of Bin Laden is the only "justice" (such as it is) that we'll ever get for what happened. The defendants at Guantanamo sure as hell aren't going to be sentenced to a prison term for their part in what happened. They financed the operation and one of them (who's going comPLETEly free) indoctrinated 3 of the actual killers into Al Qaeda. I don't care if he "probably didn't know he was doing it." If you whack someone in the face with an iron rod but didn't know it or mean to do it, you've still whacked them in the face and they'll still suffer the consequences of what you did. That defense tactic of 'he probably didn't know he was doing it' doesn't work with me.
The monsters of September 11 are all way too real, but I don't understand what running surveillance on every American in the country has to do with finding THOSE losers. They think every ordinary American was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden?


Note that the latest documented abuse has been at the hands of the 8 year Democratic party headed by Obama. Of course if you want to put it another way Executive decree has not always been even handed. How about real, timely, unbiased news reporting...that used to be the the purpose and best strength demonstrated by the press in keeping the government honest.

Patricia B

Donald absolutely terrifies me. Pence is no better!


Thank you for fighting the tsunami that is trying to sweep all of our rights under a massively flawed rug.


Someone needs to put him (D Trump), Paul Ryan and the REST of the COMMON criminal clowns down. I don't intend it as ad hominem, they're ACTing like criminals and clowns. They want to privatize Medicare & dismantle ACA.
Incidentally Trump's insane. I don't care if it's undocumented or how goddam high-falutin' WEALTHY he is. He shouldn't even have been ALLOWED to run for president.
I tried to work in government when I was 19. I was deciding on what I wanted my career choice to be and I really wanted to work in the government, was all excited in a good way about the prospect but just because I'd had one BRIEF stint in a hospital bc I was brutally raped I was told I WASN'T allowed to pursue a career in a public office in the government bc "you can't have a mental hospital record, not even one of the briefest time span."
The guy who was with me (supporting my decision to pursue secondary education) was a doctor and the news took him totally by surprise. He responded to them, "If that's true then I wonder what excuse current politicians are using for their odd behaviors. I always thought they had mental illness in their medical past history, now it appears they have no reason for what they do other than voluntary choice."
It lowered his opinion of certain political figures.
I wonder what he thinks of Donald Trump. This guy left me 13 years ago bc I was too intense for him and not a doctor. He married another doctor but I bet he wonders why Trump was allowed to run other than gd money and ridiculous hubris. How many people do you know who aspire to a position they have no experience with (he has no experience in any other part of politics) just because he's miffed a black man (who DID have experience before he became president) won the White House.

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