A lawyer and politician from the US state of Idaho, Frank Church was a boy wonder. In 1956, he won a seat on the 100-chair US Senate, making him at age 32, then the youngest person ever to serve on "the world's greatest deliberative body.”
Frank Church was often ahead of everyone else. Though from a largely White rural state, he was an early — and fierce — proponent of Civil Rights: the equal protection of rights for all US citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, or gender, under the law. He opposed the war in Vietnam in 1966 — two years after it officially began, well before the anti-war movement peaked, and a decade before its end in 1975. He met Fidel Castro of Cuba almost four decades before Barack Obama re-opened the US embassy in Havana. An early environmentalist, he led the Wilderness Act of 1964 and authored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. And he supported legislation to provide financial security for the elderly.
But the reason we remember #HistoryHero Frank Church today is that he campaigned to uncovered, and put a stop to, the unlawful abuse of power by the United States Intelligence Community during the Cold War.
As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a body he served for 24 years, he compelled the disclosure of abuses that many in government wished to keep secret. In judicial hearings, he exposed government use of illegal wiretaps, surveillance, and break-ins; harassment of political dissidents, assassination plots against foreign leaders, and campaigns to smear civil rights activists at home. Called the Church Committee, his 1975 investigations revealed that in the name of promoting democracy, US spies committed — or attempted to commit — crimes that betrayed the ethical and legal foundations of the US Constitution. Also, that they did so in collaboration with US telecommunications companies.
The Church Committee inspired the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, both of which still exist to monitor and curb similar abuses. They ensure that US intelligence findings are much less corruptible and more trustworthy today.
Nonetheless, Church was attacked by those who felt he betrayed his nation’s efforts to root out enemies — even if it meant breaking the law. The criticism led to his defeat in the 1980 senate elections. He died just a few years later in 1984 at 59.
Had Frank Church lived, he would be 95 today. We can’t help but wonder what he would think of his country today. With a leadership intent on dismantling environmental protections on behalf of polluting corporations as humanity faces down global warming, as well as disregarding the efforts of its own intelligence to prove interference in its elections in favor of the word of a brutal dictator and traditional political foe, we feel sure he would be shouting from the front lines. May his good work prevail!