Congressional Supervision of America's Secret Agencies: The Experience and Legacy of the Church Committee



In 1947, the United States created a modern intelligence community to guard against another surprise attack like the one at Pearl Harbor. This community consists of 13 major agencies, among them the CIA and the FBI. Concealed from public view, they pose a significant challenge to the concept of government accountability in a democratic society. This article examines the failure of congressional lawmakers to hold the secret agencies accountable during the Cold War. Contrary to recent theoretical research on legislative oversight, which suggests reasons that accountability has been strong in the United States, this study finds that a weak system of legislative review has permitted a dangerous erosion of civil liberties. The study also explores the efforts of the Church Committee in 1975 to fashion new safeguards that would reduce the probability of further abuse of power by the intelligence community.