The time is ripe for a new Church Committee, the surveillance oversight effort named for Senator Frank Church, who oversaw a mid-1970s investigation into decades of jaw-dropping abuses by U.S. intelligence agencies. If recent stories about the NSA don't alarm you, odds are that you've never read the Church Committee findings, which ought to be part of the standard high-school curriculum. Their lesson is clear: Under cover of secrecy, government agents will commit abuses with impunity for years on end, and only intrusive Congressional snooping can stop them.
Why is another Church Committee needed now? For more than a decade, the NSA has repeatedly engaged in activity that violated the law and the Constitutional rights of many thousands or perhaps millions of Americans.
Let's review the NSA's recent history of serial illegality. President George W. Bush presided over the first wave. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he signed a secret order that triggered a massive program of warrantless wiretapping. NSA analysts believed they possessed the authority to spy on the phone calls and emails of American citizens without a judge's permission. Circa October 2001, 90 NSA employees knew about the illegal program, but the public didn't. Later that month, four members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, were told of its existence, and subsequently discredited White House lawyer John Yoo wrote the first analysis of its legality. By 2002, 500 people knew about it, at which point telecom providers were participating.