Forty years ago, Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr. played a crucial role in exposing decades of appalling secret conduct by U.S. intelligence agencies. Today, he is publishing “Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy,” a timely and provocative book exploring the origins of the national security state and the urgent challenge of reining it in.
As the chief counsel to the Church Committee I, Schwarz helped bring to light shocking abuses that occurred under administrations of both parties. Led by Idaho Sen. Frank Church (D), the committee’s 1976 investigation uncovered, for example, the FBI’s monstrous attempt to drive Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide and the CIA’s enlistment of the mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro. Foreshadowing future scandals, it also revealed that the National Security Agency spent three decades spying on telegrams sent by U.S. citizens.
In response to the findings, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and established permanent select committees to oversee intelligence operations. Indeed, it was the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that produced the bombshell report on the CIA’s torture program released in December — though not the unredacted report the nation deserves to see. In the post-Sept. 11 era, however, these intended safeguards against excessive secrecy have undeniably and disastrously failed. As I have written before, it’s long past time to form a modern Church Committee to investigate fully secret U.S. intelligence activities in the 21st century.
As the Nation’s former Washington editor Chris Hayes wrote back in 2009, “Perhaps the greatest argument for such an undertaking is the simplest: citizens have a right to know what crimes have been committed in their names.” He concluded, “The danger now isn’t naiveté but cynicism — that we just come to accept that the government will commit crimes in our name under the cover of secrecy and that such activities are more or less business as usual, about which nothing can be done. But something can be done. Something must be done. And Congress should do it.”
At the time, President Obama resisted calls to investigate lawless intelligence practices, insisting that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Unfortunately, we know where the road forward led. The NSA spied on citizens. The CIA spied on Congress. And the American people, as Hayes warned, became further desensitized to the idea of an intelligence apparatus that operates in secret and plays by its own set of rules — or perhaps none at all.
While a meaningful investigation in the near future remains unlikely, it may be that Obama-era transgressions will boost the prospects of a bipartisan inquiry. As Schwarz argued last year in an op-ed for the Nation, “The ability to look now into the post-9/11 secret programs conducted under administrations from both parties should add to the impetus to form a new committee.” He added that while he supported an investigation several years ago, it “would have focused only on the Bush/Cheney administration, making partisan splits more likely.”
Of course, a new Church Committee is only one step toward the larger goals of reining in excessive secrecy and preserving our constitutional rights. “We only have the rights that we protect,” exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden told me in an interview last year. “It doesn’t matter what we say or think we have. It’s not enough to believe in something; it matters what we actually defend. So when we think in the context of the last decade’s infringements upon personal liberty and the last year’s revelations, it’s not about surveillance. It’s about liberty.”
In defense of that liberty, the Nation has joined the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the NSA and the Justice Department , Wikimedia v. NSA. Our complaint argues that by conducting “upstream” surveillance — indiscriminately collecting Americans’ international communications over the Internet — the NSA has violated the First and Fourth Amendments. In a recent column, Wikimedia Foundation’s Jimmy Wales and Lila Tretikov explained the significance of the lawsuit, writing that “a fundamental pillar of democracy is at stake: the free exchange of knowledge and ideas.”
Indeed, the stakes cannot be overstated. As Schwarz writes in the final words of his book, “America — the greatest democracy on Earth — will not thrive in a secrecy culture. We have a choice. Will we continue down secrecy’s path of silence and darkness? Or will we let the light shine in?”