The late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.
President Bush's hustle
to de-fang the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
of 1978 (FISA) should generate some hometown stewing. FISA is, after all, one of ours: The consummate Northwest-bred law that flowed from the consummate Northwest lawmaker, Sen. Frank Church
Of the various Bush administration outrages, FISA abuse muscles to the front. G-men running bugs on Americans in America without a warrant? J.Edgar Hoover must be looking down (or, more likely, looking up) and smiling.
Not surprisingly, the Bush administration's flout-the-law rationale echoes with Nixonian hubris: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argues that it's part of Bush's "inherent presidential powers" under Article II of the Constitution. (By the way, Gonzales will speak in Seattle
on Wednesday, June 27.)
A more creative, lamentable excuse is Congress' post-9/11 authorization of the use of military force. The joint resolution okayed "all necessary and appropriate force" to smash terrorism, which the president applied – and still applies – as a pretext to bypass the statutory restrictions in the 1978 law.
We're a poorer country for it, brothers and sisters.
The FISA that Frank Church inspired
was uncomplicated, crystalline, archly American: It created an overdue check and legal framework for electronic eavesdropping at home, including approval by a Foreign Intelligence Review Court
, as a necessary tonic to executive branch overreach.
As a law it manifests, as best as any finite document can, that delicate balance of preserving civil liberties while safeguarding national security. (With FISA, the issuing of warrants can come after the fact, mind you).
And it all began, like so many things in life, with an unwelcome assignment. On the heels of Watergate and revelations of warrantless buggings and break-ins, Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield
appointed Church to chair the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the "Church Committee
" for short) in 1975.
Church was an inspired choice
: A cerebral and boyish Democrat, he was the youngest member of the U.S. Senate
when first elected in 1956.
He also epitomized the postwar American political tradition. Steeped in the legacy of the New Deal, Frank Church harmonized the value of government intervention with the Northwestern value of libertarian hands-off-ness. Think of it as a Northwest thread in the political fabric – big government libertarianism.
Out of this welter came a politician and future presidential candidate uniquely qualified to scrutinize an intelligence community that had lost its constitutional moorings.
The young senator had already built a compelling public record. Despite representing Idaho's timber-centric economy, Church led the successful Senate-floor fight for the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, an assignment that he told his wife, Bethine, he needed "like a hole in the head." His leadership on conservation, like his leadership drawing the reins of his investigative committee, reflected a career-long pattern of a B-Western archetype: the reluctant hero. Picture a New Frontier liberal Democrat. From Idaho.
The Church Committee issued
fourteen reports and brought into focus CIA-sponsored assassinations, black-bag FBI break-ins, and warrantless spying on Americans, a practice that extended back decades.
There was discussion of Mafia hitmen sent to assassinate Fidel Castro and the "HT Lingual" program that opened and recorded U.S. mail from the 1950s until 1973.
I still remember, as an Ian Fleming-obsessed nine-year old, pressing my face to the Magnavox that sat like a Buddha in our living room. There was Sen. Church in the veined-marble hearing room of the Russell Senate Office Building, wielding a CIA poison-dart gun! Holy (expletive deleted)! It was one of the few episodes of showboating in an otherwise temperate committee process, and I was hooked.
Church's committee stewardship reflected a Northwest ethic of public service limned by independence and conscience, not simply partisanship. Think of Dan Evans
or Mark Hatfield
or Cecil Andrus
The committee itself was a study in bipartisan cordiality – fireworks and a few rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding. (Church describing the CIA as "a rogue elephant," for example. Barry Goldwater later recommending that Church use the more colorful description, "wild jackass.")
Regrettably, not all of the fallout was gravy: CIA morale took a pounding (particularly among the hard working, non-murdering majority). In addition, Philip Agee's revelations about CIA operatives coincided with the Church Committee hearings, leading a few unfairly to blame Church for agent targeting. One of the liabilities of playing the reluctant hero, it seems, is accepting responsibility for the clean-up.
There extends from
Everett, Wash., to Twin Falls, Idaho, an essential, transcendent value that says, partisanship aside, wiretapping American citizens sans a warrant is a friggin' abomination that shreds the Fourth Amendment. Could any constitutional value be more authentically Northwestern?
Various scholars, including University of Washington history professor John Findlay
, have studied the question of regional identity in Northwest literature. It reflects a kind of landscape determinism, with place shaping culture and defining values.
I'd argue that the career of Frank Church illustrates that an analogous something-in-the-soil template extends to Northwest politics. The seminal, Northwest-bred law that the senator from Idaho inspired was written at a time of corruption and intended for a time, like today, of abuse. If men were angels, to crib from Federalist No. 51
, then FISA would be unnecessary. It couldn't be more necessary now.