The recently publicized NSA programs of phone and Internet data mining require a special Congressional commission to ascertain the extent to which the nation's intelligence agencies had been involved in questionable, if not illegal behavior. Thirty-seven years ago, after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, Sen. Frank Church led such a committee to investigate illegal spying on American citizens by… you guessed it… the NSA.
When he founded the 1975 “Church Commission,” Sen. Frank Church (D-Id.) said, "[The National Security Agency's] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide." Substitute telegrams from emails and Facebook profiles and you'll find Church's concerns very similar to some senators today, notably Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.), and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.).
The Church Committee was the precursor the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is meant to oversee the intelligence community with the power to investigate intelligence activities and programs. However, a statement by Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) saying that the Committee has said that it routinely approves the NSA programs of this sort shows that the Committee is clearly failing.
Once again the Committee has waiting until the leak of a controversial surveillance program to alert the public. The committee should preventively inform the public, rather than justifying programs in hindsight of a scandal, and even then the Committee sometimes stays silent. Why was the FISA Amendment not reviewed when in 2009 the government admitted the secret FISA court has ruled "on at least one occasion" that the government's surveillance under the law had violated the Fourth Amendment.
In the same way that the Church Committee report led to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – that was later watered down in the 2008 FISA Amendment – a new commission should publish a report explaining and justifying the NSA's known surveillance programs, as well as those still kept secret, and reexamine the need for the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and Patriot Act.
We need a Church Committee for a new era, one headed by Congressional leaders who understand the necessity for caution in issues of civil liberties. A bipartisan effort is needed immediately to conduct a full, public investigation into the domestic surveillance of Americans by the intelligence communities.