Panelists Discuss Surveillance Past, Present and Future

September 24, 2013 — They gathered again, these warriors of an earlier fight against government surveillance — former Vice President Walter Mondale, Sen. Gary Hart and key staff members of the Church Committee.

They convened September 24 in an auditorium named for one of their own — the late Sen. Philip Hart (C’34, H’70), D-Mich., who was also a member of the committee — to discuss their part in what was officially known as the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975-76). 

They met at a time when government surveillance and privacy issues are once again in the news.

“Today we have a unique opportunity to consider the historic framework of the Church committee and the initial framing of U.S. intelligence that resulted from their critically important work,” said Dean William M. Treanor, introducing the panel, which was chaired by Professor Laura Donohue, director of the Center on National Security. 

Panel members also included former U.S. Ambassador William Miller and Dr. Loch Johnson, both of whom worked on the committee, which was named for the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Iowa. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (L’64), D-Vt., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, delivered the keynote address: “Through the work of the Church Committee, the American public learned of years of excesses and abuses that had occurred in the secretive and largely unchecked intelligence community… ,” Leahy said. “Today, nearly 40 years later, we have arrived at another watershed moment. And once again, it is time for change.”

Mondale said the Church Committee had tried to grapple with the “real issues,” the tension between security and liberty. “It marked the first time in the history of this nation or any nation that intelligence agencies would be subjected to a complete, thorough analysis. And this report, even today, almost 40 years later, is still cited, still taught.”

Given the vast technological changes of the last four decades and what current leaks tell us about the expanded oversight role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, there should be another investigation of surveillance activities, panelists said. 

“What [this] means for those of you in the coming generation of leaders is that you have to think about what the nature of privacy is in this new world and how much you are willing to risk to maintain and protect that privacy,” Hart said, “because I think that is the critical question of our democracy in the years to come.”

A webcast of the event can been seen by clicking here or on C-SPAN.