New Reforms: Former Church Committee Staff Members Recommend Key Changes to Intelligence Oversight

January 27, 2015

New York, NY – Today, on the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Church Committee, 17 former Church Committee staff members put forward key reforms to help Congress rein in intelligence abuses and repair weakened oversight structures in a new report out today.

“The 40th anniversary of the formation of the Church Committee provides an opportunity to reassert our Founders’ confidence that our national security can be most effectively maintained with robust systems of democratic accountability,” wrote former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Sen. Gary Hart, both former Church Committee members, in a foreword to this report.

“Now is the time for Congress to examine its oversight authority over U.S. intelligence agencies,” said Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr. former Chief Counsel to the Church Committee. “Congress should use these recommendations as a foundation for a new bipartisan examination of intelligence abuse and oversight failure. Only then can we begin to honestly re-evaluate and fix the serious gaps in oversight that have allowed these agencies too often to operate outside their constitutional mandates.”

“A thorough investigation of current oversight failures is long overdue,” said Michael German, editor of the report and Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Without meaningful oversight, the NSA, FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies are accountable only to themselves. The American people need to know that Congress is doing its job to ensure intelligence agencies are respecting the Constitution and the rule of law.”

The scope and capabilities of U.S. intelligence operations have changed dramatically since Congress formed the Church Committee 40 years ago today. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress passed new laws that greatly expanded the reach of intelligence agencies, while cutting back on oversight. Unfortunately, this new state of affairs has led to government overreach and abuse, including the mass surveillance of Americans’ information and secret torture programs.

New recommendations set forth by 17 former Church Committee staff members can guide a new investigation of intelligence abuse and oversight failure.

Key recommendations for steps Congress should take include:

  • Assessing whether Congress has the appropriate resources to maintain effective oversight of intelligence activities. For example, does Congress have staff and resources to evaluate reports from oversight bodies such as Inspectors General, the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and outside interest groups?
  • Examining whether committees are able to get the information necessary to properly guide intelligence activities and inform the rest of Congress and the public.
  • Modifying the FISA process to make it more transparent and accountable.
  • Reassessing the government’s aggressive foreign intelligence surveillance practices, which jeopardize the United States’ role as a leader in promoting human rights and democracy in the international community.
  • Adopting measures to reduce overclassification, which squanders intelligence resources, impedes information sharing, denies the public access to information it can use to better understand threats, and promotes leaks by eroding respect for the classification system.

As meaningful reform of intelligence activities continues to be an elusive goal, Congress should draw on the Church Committee’s expertise to bring U.S. intelligence activities in compliance with the law and with American values.

Read the full report here.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Seth Hoy at or 646-292-8369.