On Monday, I mentioned in passing the Church Committee, the post-Watergate Congressional committee that uncovered evidence of massive lawbreaking by the executive branch. The Committee’s report was incredibly important in helping the public understand the depth and breadth of Cold War lawlessness during the previous three decades. When Cato asked me to pen the chapter on electronic surveillance in this year’s edition of the Cato Handbook on Policy, I included a recommendation that Congress should launch a modern-day successor to the Church Committee.
In the last few months, I’ve been pleased to see that people smarter than me have been having the same idea. The latest is the Nation‘s Chris Hayes, who has a great cover story calling on Congress to launch a wide-ranging investigation of executive branch lawbreaking. I think the most important point is this one:
Since the committee began in the wake of Nixon’s resignation and revelations about his deceptions, abuses and sociopathic pursuit of grudges, Church and many Democrats had every reason to believe they would be chiefly unmasking the full depths of Nixon’s perfidy. Quickly, however, it became clear that Nixon was a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Kennedy and Johnson had, with J. Edgar Hoover, put in place many of the illegal policies and programs. Secret documents obtained by the committee even revealed that the sainted FDR had ordered IRS audits of his political enemies. Republicans on the committee, then, had as much incentive to dig up the truth as did their Democratic counterparts.
As historian Kathy Olmsted argues in her book Challenging the Secret Government, Church was never quite able to part with this conception of good Democrats/bad Republicans. Confronted with misdeeds under Kennedy and Johnson, he chose to view the CIA as a rogue agency, as opposed to one executing the president’s wishes. This characterization became the fulcrum of debate within the committee. At one point Church referred to the CIA as a “rogue elephant,” causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn’t the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: “the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies,” he said during a committee hearing, “is, above all, a grant of power to the president.”
A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale’s approach and not Church’s. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.
This is a case where political expedience and justice point in the same direction. A thorough investigation will undoubtedly uncover numerous examples of abuses of power under the Bush administration. But Bill Clinton was hardly a civil libertarian himself. Thoroughly investigating abuses of power under Clinton (and under Reagan and Bush I) will serve two important purposes. First, of course, it will help to deflect spurious charges that the investigation is a partisan witchhunt. But more importantly, it will likely underscore the point that abuses of power are a bipartisan phenomenon. The problem is not just that George Bush was an exceptionally bad president (although of course he was). The problem is that presidents are almost always power-hungry, and our system of government lacks adequate checks and balances against abuses of power by the executive branch. The abuses of the Bush/Cheney years may provide the political momentum we need to fix the problem. But the problem is bigger than any one administration.
Thus far, Congress has shown a disappointing lack of courage when it comes to pursuing evidence of executive-branch lawlessness. We already have several clear examples of lawbreaking by the Bush administration. Thus far, Congress’s only reaction has been to give a get out of jail free card to some of the participants. There’s an obscene bipartisan consensus that we should never “look backwards,” no matter how egregiously the law might have been broken. But the recent waves of revelations have been so stomach-turning that it might just break down that elite consensus. Even the most jaded political hack must have second thoughts when he reads detailed accounts of government officials torturing dozens of prisoners. The people who did these things need to be brought to justice. And that will only happens if Congress first unearths the details on exactly how extensive the lawbreaking was.