Frank Church - Idaho's last Democrat U.S. Senator - feared government snooping

History corner

Print Article

Idaho Senator Frank Church (1924-1984)

"If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny," Idaho Democrat Senator Frank Church told NBC's "Meet the Press" in 1975, "and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.

"Such is the capability of this technology."

He was talking primarily about the CIA, National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI's technological ability to spy on our enemies. Church was afraid that the same technology could be used against the American people. That concern remains in the U.S. to this day.

"We have seen segments of our Government, in their attitudes and action, adopt tactics unworthy of a democracy, and occasionally reminiscent of totalitarian regimes," the Church Committee reported. "We have seen a consistent pattern in which programs initiated with limited goals, such as preventing criminal violence or identifying foreign spies, were expanded to what witnesses characterized as 'vacuum cleaners,' sweeping in information about lawful activities of American citizens.

"The tendency of intelligence activities to expand beyond their initial scope is a theme which runs through every aspect of our investigative findings. Intelligence collection programs naturally generate ever-increasing demands for new data. And once intelligence has been collected, there are strong pressures to use it against the target."

Church was considered a liberal in the U.S. Senate, though his political idol was conservative former Republican Sen. William E. Borah, the "Lion of Idaho."

He was proud to call himself a "dove" during the Vietnam War - advocating the U.S. pull out - putting himself at loggerheads with President Lyndon B. Johnson who at one time had about half a million American military in Vietnam.

When Nixon became president and announced that the U.S. was ending the war, Church boasted that the doves won. He demanded complete withdrawal, not leaving troops behind - as the U.S. has in Europe and Korea since World War II and the Korean War. Nixon agreed.

Frank Forrester Church III was born in Boise in 1924, the youngest of two boys whom their father, a sporting goods store owner, schooled early in life to hike, hunt and fish in the Idaho wilderness.

He was student body president at Boise High School, graduated from Stanford, attended law school at Harvard but finished his law degree back at Stanford before joining the Army in 1943 as an intelligence officer in the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI).

In 1956, he was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 32 - fifth-youngest in history. At first, he supported the war in Vietnam, but later opposed it. From 1975 to 1976, he chaired the Senate committee investigating the intelligence agencies - the House had a similar committee. After the war he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Early U.S. Secretary of State Edward Livingston (1831-1833) warned: "If we are to violate the Constitution, will the people submit to our unauthorized acts? Sir, they ought not to submit; they would deserve the chains that these measures are forging for them. The country will swarm with informers, spies, delators (accusers, informers) and all the odious reptile tribe that breed in the sunshine of a despotic power...

"The hours of the most unsuspected confidence, the intimacies of friendship, or the recesses of domestic retirement afford no security. The companion whom you most trust, the friend in whom you must confide, the domestic who waits in your chamber, all are tempted to betray your imprudent or unguarded follie; to misrepresent your words; to convey them, distorted by calumny, to the secret tribunal where jealousy presides - where fear officiates as accuser and suspicion is the only evidence that is heard."

Ronald Reagan also was concerned, stating "Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves."

There's nothing new about spying.

Moses sent 12 spies into the "Promised Land" to assess the Canaanites. They reported back that the cities were heavily fortified and that they saw "giants." (Numbers 13)

Julius Caesar had spies too, but they failed to keep him safe - he was killed by his own senators in 44 B.C.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had a vast network ferreting out heretics during the Inquisition, with French Bishop Bernard Gui writing a manual on how to find heretics and deal with them, called "Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Depravity" (1324).

Queen Elizabeth I deputized Francis Walsingham as her "CIA" chief. He found out through his spies that Spain was planning to invade England and install Mary, Queen of Scots as monarch. That cost Mary her head.

In 1793 during the French Revolution, Robespierre set up a 12-member "committee of surveillance" to seek out and arrest nobles, foreigners, Frenchmen who recently travelled aboard, suspended public officials and others believed unsympathetic to the revolution.

Today, a BBC report states "The United States entered the surveillance business in earnest following World War II, when it began collecting and monitoring all telegraph information coming into and out of the country as part of Project Shamrock. It also created a 'watch list' of U.S. citizens suspected of 'subversive' activities whose communications it kept tabs on in Project Minaret."

Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) worried that the NSA could be used by future presidents to spy on the American people "to chill and interrupt political dissent." To prevent these abuses, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) created a secret court (FISC) to handle domestic surveillance.

Fast-forward to recent times:

According to Britain's Guardian newspaper (that first published security leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden) the current U.S. administration, "has equally shown a dismaying aggression in not only criminalising leaking and whistleblowing, but also recently placing reporters under surveillance - tracking them and pulling their phone and email logs in order to monitor their sources for stories that were patently of public importance."

Snowden said, "Study after study has shown that human behavior changes when we know we're being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free."

Frank Church understood that, and did his best as a "Watchman on the Wall."

All long political careers breed long lists of enemies. Idahoans protested his support of President Jimmy Carter's action returning the Panama Canal to Panama, and formed the "Anybody But Church" (ABC) committee, along with political action committees to defeat the 24-year senator. Their efforts succeeded.

Four terms in the Senate came to an end when he ran for reelection in 1980 and was defeated by Republican Steve Symms, making Church the last Democrat from Idaho to serve in the U.S. Senate.

He left a mixed legacy of supporting both liberal and conservative causes. He strongly opposed the Vietnam War but spoke out against gun control, and authored legislation exempting health providers from performing procedures (such as abortions) "against their conscience."

His support of conservation causes earned him the honor of naming 3,600 square miles of Idaho the "Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness."

But he left politics most remembered for investigating government snooping. "I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge," he implored. "I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return..."

"When we've got these people who have practically limitless powers within a society," Edward Snowden wrote, "if they get a pass without so much as a slap on the wrist, what example does that set for the next group of officials that come into power? To push the lines a little bit further, a little bit further, a little bit further, and we'll realize that we're no longer citizens - we're subjects."

Has America learned that lesson of history? It's a question the Idaho senator might have asked.

Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at

Chairman Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), with co-chairman Sen. John G. Tower (R-Texas) at Church Committee hearing, Washington, D.C. (1975)


Idaho Governor John Evans, Senator Frank Church Frank Church and wife Bethine in Shoshone, Idaho during inaugural of Amtrak Pioneer service linking Seattle and Salt Lake City (1977)


Eleventh U.S. Secretary of State Edward Livingston(1831-1833)


Middle Fork Salmon River, Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho


FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, target of Church Committee investigation


CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden

Print Article

Read More Syd Albright

HISTORY CORNER: World War II: The death of an empire and dawn of a new Japan

July 14, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press It was a cloudy day and the ceremony lasted only 29 minutes. World War II ended with the Japanese signing the Instrument of Surrender documents on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Ba...


Read More

HISTORY CORNER: History remembers the Magnificent Seven under age 25 and what they did

July 07, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press Age doesn’t seem to matter much when history shows how young people can accomplish so many great things. Here are just seven of them who accomplished great works when only 25 years old or younger: A...


Read More

History Corner: Sailing aboard the wooden warships was tough and dangerous

June 30, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press Sailing the high seas aboard wooden sailing ships in ancient times took iron men with courage and the unflinching determination to achieve their goals whether exploration of the great unknown, openin...


Read More

History Corner: William O. Douglas, the unusual U.S. Supreme Court Justice from Yakima

June 23, 2019 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was described by Judge Richard A. Posner, a law clerk at the Court while he was there, as “bored, distracted, un-collegial, irresponsible … rude, ice-col...


Read More

Contact Us

(208) 664-8176
215 N. Second St
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 83814

©2019 The Coeur d'Alene Press Terms of Use Privacy Policy