Frank Church

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Frank Church was a United States lawyer and politician from the western state of Idaho. He was something of a boy wonder, being sent to Washington as a member of the 100-chair Senate at the age of 32. This made him one of the youngest individuals ever to serve the congressional chamber that calls itself "the world's greatest deliberative body." It was 1956. And even though he came from a sparsely populated and largely White rural state, Church was an early and fierce proponent of Civil Rights legislation; that is, the equal protection of rights for all US citizens, irrespective of gender, race, or creed, under the law.

Frank Church was often ahead of everyone else. He came out against the war in Vietnam in 1966, just two years after it officially began, well before the peak of the anti-war movement, and nearly a decade before it came to an end in 1975. He met Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, in 1977, almost four decades before the US re-opened its embassy in Havana. But the reason we remember Frank Church as a #HistoryHero today — and the cause that led to his defeat in the 1980 elections — is that he campaigned to uncover, 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, on which he served for 24 years, Church compelled the disclosure of activities that many in the US government wanted very much to be kept secret. This involved judicial hearings with intelligence agency officials, facilitated by Frank Church in 1975, that exposed such abuses as illegal wiretaps, break-ins, surveillance, harassment of political dissidents, assassination plots against foreign leaders, and campaigns to smear civil rights activists at home. Called the Church Committee, these investigations revealed that in the name of promoting democracy and defeating communism, US spies committed — or attempted to commit — crimes that betrayed the ethical and legal foundations of the US Constitution and that it did so in collaboration with US telecommunications companies.

 Frank Church with US President Jimmy Carter (1977-81).

Frank Church with US President Jimmy Carter (1977-81).

The work of the Church Committee inspired the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA) as well as the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, both of which still exist to monitor and curb similar abuses, making US intelligence agency findings much less corruptible and more trustworthy today. Nonetheless, Church was bombarded with criticism that he'd betrayed the US, undermining its efforts to confront its enemies. These attacks led to his defeat in the 1980 senate elections. He died just a few years later in 1984, at the age of 59.

Throughout his political career, Frank Church championed a wide range of causes. In addition to the above, he played a major role in creating protected wilderness areas, managing the Wilderness Act of 1964 and authoring the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. He also supported legislation that provided financial security for the elderly. We can’t help but wonder what he would think of his country today in the face of a leadership intent on dismantling environmental protections on behalf of polluting corporations as well as disregarding the efforts of its own intelligence community now far more believable thanks to his efforts in favor of the word of a brutal dictator and traditional political foe. That’s why we honor and remember Frank Church as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero today. May his good work prevail!

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