Idaho Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy

Frank Church was a United States Senator from the state of Idaho, serving as a Democrat in the Senate from 1957 to 1981, leaving when he was defeated for reelection by Republican Steve Symms. By today’s standards, Church was a very young senator. He was elected at the age of 32 and served only until age 56. Then he passed away from cancer in 1984 at age 59. Church received his first big national exposure in 1960 when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. He’s probably best known for chairing the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities beginning in 1975, which came to be known as the Church Committee. The committee’s hearings revealed a number of troubling programs carried out by the CIA, FBI and NSA that were previously secret. “Operation MKULTRA” involved the drugging and torture of unwitting U.S. citizens as part of human experimentation on mind control. “COINTELPRO” involved the surveillance and infiltration of American political and civil rights organizations. “Family Jewels” was a CIA program to covertly assassinate foreign leaders. “HTLINGUAL” was a combination CIA/FBI program under which more than 215,000 pieces of U.S. mail were opened and photographed without warrants or the knowledge of the U.S. Post Office. And “Project SHAMROCK” was a program in which major telecommunications companies shared their traffic and customer information with the NSA from the 1940’s to the 1970’s without the knowledge of those customers. The Church Committee was also the first entity in the U.S. government to acknowledge that the Warren Commission investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy had been deficient and hurried at the urging of the FBI and CIA. In 1982, Boise State University began holding the annual Frank Church Conference on government and public affairs. The first keynote speaker, in 1982, was Frank Church himself. Others in the years since have included U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, former President Gerald Ford, Senator Edmund Muskie, historian and White House advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Senator Mark Hatfield, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, Senator George McGovern, Vice-President Al Gore, Senator Gary Hart, Ambassador Christopher Hill, historian Douglas Brinkley and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. The 2023 Frank Church Conference will be held at Boise State University this Thursday, October 19th. The keynote speakers will be two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Risen and retired CIA counterterrorism specialist Gina M. Bennett, who served in the intelligence community for 34 years and was a pioneer for women in national security and intelligence careers. Bennett is now the strategic advisor for “Girl Security”, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which seeks to empower, secure and advance young girls into national and international security-mission careers. Risen has referred to Church in the past as “the last honest man”, based on a campaign occurrence from 1956. Church was running for the senate against incumbent Republican Herman Welker, who had been a staunch supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy and his anti-Communist campaign. Two years earlier, in 1954, Welker had been part of a scheme to blackmail Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming. Welker told Hunt that he would expose the fact that Hunt’s son had been arrested for homosexual solicitation if Hunt did not resign. Hunt did not resign. Instead he committed suicide in his senate office. As Church was running against Welker in 1956, his staff, of their own accord, put together a pamphlet that laid out the story of Welker’s blackmailing. Before sending out the pamphlet, they showed it to Church. Church refused to put out the pamphlet and ordered that all the pamphlets be burned in a bonfire behind his Boise campaign office. Church told his staff, according to Risen, “I want to win on the issues. I don’t want to win through this dirty campaigning.” Risen’s new book is called “The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia and the Kennedys, and One Senator’s Fight to Save Democracy”, and it will be available for sale at the conference.