By: Lloyd Green

Photo: The Guardian

The Last Honest Man: Frank Church and the fight to restrain US power

Frank Forrester Church sat in the US Senate for 24 years. His tenure was consequential. A Democrat, he battled for civil rights and came to oppose the Vietnam war. He believed Americans were citizens, not subjects. Chairing the intelligence select committee was his most enduring accomplishment. James Risen, a Pulitzer-winning reporter now with the Intercept, sees him as a hero. The Last Honest Man is both paean and lament.

“For decades … the CIA’s operations faced only glancing scrutiny from the White House, and virtually none from Congress,” Risen writes. “True oversight would have to wait until 1975, and the arrival on the national stage of a senator from Idaho, Frank Church.”

For 16 months, Church and his committee scrutinized the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency and their many abuses. Amid the cold war, in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, Congress grappled with the balance between civil liberties and national security, executive prerogative and congressional authority.

Political assassinations, covert operations and domestic surveillance finally received scrutiny and oversight. A plot to kill Fidel Castro, with an assist from organized crime, made headlines. So did the personal ties that bound John F Kennedy, mob boss Sam Giancana and their shared mistress, Judith Campbell Exner.

Giancana was murdered before he testified. Before John Rosselli, another mobster, could make a third appearance, his decomposed body turned up in a steel fuel drum near Miami.

One subheading in the Church committee’s interim report bears the title: “The Question of Whether the Assassination Operation Involving Underworld Figures Was Known About by Attorney General Kennedy or President Kennedy as Revealed by Investigations of Giancana and Rosselli”.

Against this grizzly but intriguing backdrop, Risen’s book is aptly subtitled: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys – And One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy. The Last Honest Man is a gem, marbled with scoop, laden with interviews.

In 2006, Risen won the Pulitzer prize for his coverage of George W Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. Risen was also part of the New York Times team that snagged a Pulitzer in the aftermath of September 11. He endured a seven-year legal battle with the Bush and Obama justice departments, for refusing to name a source. Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general, backed off. But he earned Risen’s lasting ire.

In 2015, Risen called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation”. Holder, he said, “has done the bidding of the intelligence community and the White House to damage press freedom in the United States”.

And then came Donald Trump.

Risen now describes Dick Cheney’s efforts to block Church’s committee, as chief of staff to Gerald Ford. To Cheney’s consternation, the president “refused to engage in an all-out war”. So Cheney nursed a grudge and bided his time.

In 1987, Cheney and congressional Republicans issued a dissent on Iran-Contra, blaming the Church committee for the concept of “all but unlimited congressional power”. Later, as vice-president to George W Bush, Cheney zestily embraced the theory of the unitary executive, the global “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq.

The Last Honest Man also doubles as a guide to high-stakes politics. Risen captures Gary Hart and the late Walter Mondale on the record. Both Democratic presidential hopefuls – Mondale the candidate in 1984, Hart the frontrunner, briefly, in the 1988 race – after sitting on Church’s committee. The three senators were competitors and colleagues. Paths and ambitions intersected.

Church entered the 1976 Democratic presidential primary late – and lost to Jimmy Carter. Carter weighed picking Church as his running mate but opted for Mondale instead.

“I think he had seen me on a Sunday news talk show, talking about the Church committee, and he liked how I looked and sounded,” Mondale told Risen.

It was for the best. Church never cottoned to Carter. Carter and his aides returned the favor. They “hated Church right back”. David Aaron, a Church aide and later deputy to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, recalls: “I know that whenever Church’s name came up, Brzezinski would grimace.”

In 1980, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush beat Carter and Mondale in a landslide. The election also cost Church his seat and the Democrats control of the Senate. Four years later, Mondale bested Hart for the Democratic nomination, only to be shellacked by Reagan-Bush again.

Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, leaves his mark on Risen’s pages too. He played a “previously undisclosed role in the Church committee’s investigation of the assassinations of foreign leaders”, Risen reports in a lengthy footnote.

In an interview, Ellsberg says he “met privately” with Church in 1975, as the committee investigated assassination plots. In Risen’s telling, Ellsberg cops to handing Church “a manilla envelope containing copies of a series of top-secret cables” between the US embassy in South Vietnam and “the Kennedy White House”.

The messages purportedly pertained to the “US role in the planning of the 1963 coup against South Vietnamese president [Ngô Đình] Diệm that resulted in his assassination”. The Church committee interim report referred to cable traffic between the embassy in Saigon and the White House but contained no mention of Ellsberg.

In other words, assassinations and coups carry a bipartisan legacy. It wasn’t just Eisenhower and Nixon, Iran and Chile.

Risen hails Church as “an American Cicero” who “offered the United States a brief glimpse of what it would be like to turn away from its imperialistic ambitions … and return to its roots as a republic”.

He overstates, but not by much. Iraq and its aftermath still reverberate. But for that debacle, it is unlikely Trumpism would have attained the purchase it still possesses. Our national divide would not be as deep – or intractable. Church died in April 1984, aged just 59.


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