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'The Last Honest Man' profiles the senator who exposed the CIA's crimes and cover-ups

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We live in a world today where it's understood that the United States has a powerful array of intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and others. And while much of what they do is classified, it's also understood that they're ultimately accountable to Congress and the American people for what they spend and what they do. But that wasn't always the case. Our guest today, veteran journalist James Risen, tells the story of Frank Church, a senator from Idaho who, in the mid-1970s, held hearings which exposed shocking crimes and cover-ups by the intelligence agencies, including assassination attempts on foreign leaders, the surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King and other activists and CIA mind control experiments with LSD. Risen writes that, more than anyone else in American history, Frank Church is responsible for bringing the CIA, the FBI and the rest of the government's intelligence apparatus under the rule of law.

James Risen earned the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2006 for his stories at The New York Times about the National Security Agency's domestic spying program. He shared another Pulitzer in 2002 for the paper's coverage of the September 11 attacks and terrorism. He's the author of four previous books and is currently the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. His new book is "The Last Honest Man: The CIA, The FBI, The Mafia, And The Kennedys - And One Senator's Fight To Save Democracy." James Risen, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JAMES RISEN: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: You have quite a history of reporting on national security and intelligence issues. You've broken huge stories, and you were, for years, targeted by the government and threatened with jail unless you would answer their questions about your sources. I'm just wondering, as you were doing all of this reporting over the past couple of decades, were you aware of Frank Church and his impact on public knowledge and government oversight of the intelligence forces?

RISEN: Yes. That's exactly why I wrote this book - was - I was covering the CIA at the time of 9/11 and after 9/11. I actually started covering the CIA before 9/11. But after 9/11, if you remember, the Bush administration wanted to roll back a lot of the regulations that governed the CIA and the FBI in the name of counterterrorism. And there - they claimed that there were old rules that limited the ability of the U.S. government to target and dismantle terrorist organizations.

And the - Dick Cheney, who was then the vice president and who really took the lead after 9/11 in the Bush administration's war on terror, constantly talked about how the problem was all of these old rules that dated back to the Church Committee. And he blamed the Church Committee, which had operated in the 1970s, for the problems after 9/11 that the government had. And so at that point, I didn't really know very much about Frank Church. But Dick Cheney really reintroduced Frank Church and the Church Committee to America and to me, frankly. And ever since that time, I was thinking - I had in the back of my mind that I would like to learn more about Frank Church and the Church Committee and to eventually write a book about it.

DAVIES: Yeah. And it is quite a story. And it's also interesting that Dick Cheney himself figures into this...

RISEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Because he was a deputy chief of staff back in the '70s for the - for President Gerald Ford when this was going on. You know...

RISEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: When you do this work on reporting on the intelligence services and national security, I would imagine that congressional sources are important, both members and staff, in getting information to you and also, you know, just generally putting information in the ecosphere which you can, at some point, access. I wonder, was that not true before Church and his committee did its thing?

RISEN: No. There was no - the fascinating thing about the Church Committee is that there was no congressional oversight of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the Church Committee. There were a handful of kind of old barons in the House and the Senate who ran the Armed Services Committees, who the CIA director would occasionally go have drinks with and whisper a couple secrets. And that was the extent of the congressional oversight. So there was no meaningful oversight for the first 30 years of the CIA's existence. And that changed in 1975.

DAVIES: OK. So let's talk a little bit about Frank Church. Pretty remarkable guy - among other things, the fact that he was a liberal, Democratic senator from Idaho, I guess the last Democratic senator, right?

RISEN: Yes.

DAVIES: Just tell us a bit about his background, what he was like.

RISEN: Frank Church was a fascinating character because he was really, like, an urbane city boy caught up in the mountain west. He was - grew up in Boise. He was really always the smartest kid in his school. He won a national debating contest when he was still in high school and then went to Stanford. And he married the daughter of the governor of Idaho. He was very politically ambitious from the get-go. And he wanted - he was on his way to becoming a lawyer when he was struck with cancer in the late 1940s after he had served in World War II in China as an intelligence officer. And he - his brush with cancer really convinced him - really transformed him and convinced him to immediately run for Senate against one of the old-line allies of Joseph McCarthy, a man named Herman Welker, who - I love the nickname. Welker was so close to Joe McCarthy that they called him Little Joe from Idaho. And Frank Church beat him in 1956.

DAVIES: Right, and enters the Senate at the age of 32. You know, there's something about that campaign that would - says something about Frank Church's standards of conduct, which would seem quaint today. And this involves when his supporters had put together a pamphlet of negative information about his opponent, Herman Welker. What did Church do when he found out about this thing?

RISEN: It was a - it's a fascinating story. In the fall of 1956, when he's running against Herman Welker, his staff found out about - they got a lot of opposition research about Welker because he was a really nasty guy. He had blackmailed another senator who was an opponent of Joe McCarthy, and that senator had killed himself in his office. And they wanted to put all this information and other things about Welker into a pamphlet. And when Church found out about it, he said, no, we're not going to do that. And he ordered his staff to burn all, like, 50,000 copies of the pamphlet right - in a bonfire right behind his campaign office. And he said, I want to win on the issues. And that really - he beat Welker. And that really set the standard for the way he ran in the future.

DAVIES: So he enters the Senate at age 32. You know, he had been an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army serving in China, where he came to be very skeptical of the anti-communist side in the civil war there, led by Chiang Kai-shek, you know, its repression and corruption. But, you know, he kind of came into the Senate and adopted the Cold War policies that were dominant at the time of doing everything to try and contain communist expansion around the world. But he came to a very different view of American policy. You want to give us a sense of that view and how he got there?

RISEN: Yeah. In the late '50s, he - as you said, he was a Democratic cold warrior, which was kind of the John F. Kennedy approach to the Cold War - to be even more hawkish than the Republicans. And that was the strategy that the Democratic party had in order to try to win back the White House in 1960 from Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. And Frank Church went along with that until Kennedy got involved with Vietnam. And in 1962, he took his first trip to Vietnam. And it was - for Frank Church, it was deja vu all over again. It was just like China in World War II. It was - the corruption and the incompetence of the South Vietnamese army and government reminded him of the problems that he had seen in China with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist army.

And he thought that it was a horrible thing for the United States to be involved with, this corrupt regime that didn't have any support and which was clearly losing to an insurgency. And so he began to very slowly and gradually turn against the war. He was - tried to be subtle about it at first because he was very close to Jack Kennedy. But then after Kennedy's assassination and Lyndon Johnson became president, he really much more openly turned against the war.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with James Risen. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His new book about the late Senator Frank Church is called "The Last Honest Man." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with James Risen. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who's worked on national security issues and the intelligence community. His new book about the late Senator Frank Church and his hearings about the intelligence community's misdeeds in the 1970s is called "The Last Honest Man: The CIA, The FBI, The Mafia, And The Kennedys - And One Senator's Fight To Save Democracy."

Well, the hearings that everybody remembers back from the '70s, really, was their Senate investigation of Watergate. There was a special Senate Select Committee, which was chaired by Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, a plainspoken guy who was so effective in those hearings. Frank Church's hearings on the CIA grew out of an earlier investigation he'd done of multinational corporations. This was a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You want to just give us a little bit of a sense of what prompted the Senate to start digging into American corporations and their actions overseas and what they found?

RISEN: Yeah. Yeah. As you said, Frank Church was kind of - he had been the star on Vietnam and fighting against the Vietnam War. And then he got left out of the Watergate investigation. And so suddenly, he was no longer the big star in the Senate. But at the - just as Watergate was happening, Jack Anderson, who you may remember, a longtime investigative reporter in Washington, uncovered a quid pro quo between ITT, the old telecommunications company, and the Nixon administration. They were going to pay, essentially, a bribe to the Nixon campaign in order to get a favorable ruling on an antitrust case.

And Jack Anderson, you know, wrote this. It was a huge story. And then suddenly, he wrote the - he got a whole new batch of documents, magically, that showed that the - that ITT had been working with the CIA in Chile to overturn the election of a socialist president, Salvador Allende. And so Church, who was really kind of looking for the next thing he wanted to do after Vietnam, latched onto this issue of ITT and the CIA working in Chile together to overturn the election and convince the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to allow him to start an investigation of multinational companies and what they were doing all over the world. And he focused on ITT and the CIA. And that led him down a really tortuous path of investigating the CIA. And it really led to how he became the chairman of the Church Committee.

DAVIES: So let's talk about the Church Committee, which looked into the intelligence agencies, and some of the things that were revealed. And I'm just - we'll just note to listeners, we'll cover a bit of this here, but there is so much more that we can get to. And the details here are really amazing. I commend them to your reading. One thing that got a lot of attention was the fact that the CIA had been engaged in assassination plots of foreign leaders. And you tell an amazing story here about how that got out. It involved Gerald Ford, the president, blurting something.

RISEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Share...

RISEN: Right.

DAVIES: ...This one with us. Yeah.

RISEN: Yeah. Right after, you know, Sy Hersh, The New York Times investigative reporter, had written a story in December 1974 revealing that the CIA had been conducting a massive domestic spying operation against antiwar dissidents and other people that the U.S. didn't like, that led to the creation of the Church Committee. And it also led the White House - the Ford White House to meet with the editors of the New York Times in January 1975, right after Sy Hersh's story. And the editors met with him and asked him basically, you know, what he thought of their story and what was going on with the CIA. And he blurted out, you know, I don't want you to keep looking into more things because there's so much more. And the editor of the Times said, like what? And he said, like assassinations. And then he said, but that's off the record.

And so President Ford blurted out to the executive editor of The New York Times that the U.S. government had been conducting assassinations, but then he told him he couldn't print it. And the editors went back to The New York Times and debated it, and they all agreed. Well, there was - the president says it's off the record, then it's off the record. And they didn't even tell Sy Hersh what he had said. But Tom Wicker, who was a columnist and also one of the editors and who had been in the meeting, decided this was ridiculous. We can't keep this secret. And so he went to Sy Hersh and told him what Ford had said and that the editors had agreed to keep it off the record.

So Sy Hersh made a few phone calls, confirmed the story that, yes, the U.S. - the CIA had been conducting assassinations. And since he knew he couldn't publish it in The New York Times, he called Daniel Schorr, who was then a reporter for CBS News and who was also a neighbor of his in Washington, and he told him the story. And so Daniel Schorr broke the story about the CIA assassination program. And that then - once that story came out, then the Church Committee decided to focus on that as their first major investigation.

DAVIES: Yeah - just amazing that Ford blurted it. And then...

RISEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Once journalists heard it, if they couldn't get the story, they would share it with somebody that they thought could get it out. So this is one of the most fascinating things that the Church Committee uncovered, were - particularly the assassination plots against Fidel Castro, in which the CIA worked directly with American mob figures. The CIA, through an intermediary, contacted a a mobster named Johnny Roselli, who in turn got a Chicago mob boss named Sam Giancana, who said, yeah, well, if we're going to do this, we got to get this guy from from Florida who - named Santo Trafficante. Anyway, these folks set up shop in Florida to try and cooperate with the CIA in the assassination of Fidel Castro. What kinds of schemes did they consider? What did they try?

RISEN: They tried everything. They obviously never succeeded, but they were mostly trying to poison Castro. But in a lot of ways, they just kind of sat around at - in Miami Beach and cooked and drank and womanized. One of the problems that they had was that Sam Giancana, who was the mob boss of Chicago, who - as you said - Johnny Roselli, who was kind of a LA and Las Vegas mobster, brought in. Sam Giancana was really missing his girlfriend, who was a singer in Las Vegas. And at the time that the - they were all supposed to be trying to assassinate Fidel Castro - Sam Giancana wanted to leave Miami and go to Vegas because he was convinced that she was sleeping with another guy from Hollywood. And...

DAVIES: This is the comedian, Dan Rowan. If...

RISEN: Yeah, Dan Rowan.

DAVIES: ...Older listeners will remember "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

RISEN: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: This is just an amazing story. Yeah.

RISEN: Yeah. And so it was the - Phyllis McGuire, one of the McGuire sisters. And so she - they - in order to convince Sam Giancana to stay in Miami, one of the other guys involved in the plot arranged for a private detective to wiretap McGuire's room in in Las Vegas. And then he got caught by the local police, and the FBI got involved. And the FBI traced it back to these guys sitting in a hotel in Miami Beach. And that unraveled the entire plot by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. And so suddenly, J. Edgar Hoover knew what the CIA was doing. J. Edgar Hoover is the FBI director - really wanted - and then he found out that the Kennedy administration was involved. So it was - the whole thing kind of blew up.

DAVIES: We'll just take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with James Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. He's currently senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. His new book about Senator Church is "The Last Honest Man: The CIA, The FBI, The Mafia, And The Kennedys - And One Senator's Fight To Save Democracy." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PEACOCK'S "INTROENDING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author James Risen. He has a new book about the late Senator Frank Church, who in the 1970s held dramatic hearings exposing crimes and cover-ups by America's intelligence agencies. Risen says that more than anyone in American history, Church is responsible for bringing the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies under the rule of law. Risen is currently senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. His new book is titled "The Last Honest Man."

When we left off, Risen was discussing one of the most dramatic revelations of the Church hearings - that in the early '60s, the CIA was working with Mafia figures to plot the assassination of Fidel Castro. While those plans were underway, by chance, the discovery by staff in a Las Vegas hotel of a wiretap on a room that had been ordered by a Chicago mob boss led to an FBI investigation. And that in turn revealed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover the CIA-mob connection. And that, Risen writes, led to another really sensational revelation involving then-President John Kennedy.

RISEN: Hoover begins to pull the thread on this entire CIA-Mafia connection. And the FBI - he realizes this is great stuff that he can use against his enemies in the government, because he really hated the CIA. And he hated the Kennedys. And he found - eventually he found that Sam Giancana was having an affair with a girl from Los Angeles named Judith Campbell, and that Judith Campbell was also having an affair with President Kennedy. And this was gold for J. Edgar Hoover because he was increasingly concerned about whether Kennedy would fire him or keep - or allow him to continue to run the FBI the way he wanted to, because Kennedy had put his own brother as attorney general. And he didn't like either Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, or the president. And so he - this whole plot by the CIA to assassinate Castro ultimately backfired and led to a form of blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover against President Kennedy and the CIA.

DAVIES: So this is a weird kind of set of circumstances, one thing leading to another.

RISEN: Yeah. And all of this was secret until the Church committee uncovered it all.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, one of the things the Church committee had to consider was whether this woman, Judith Campbell, who apparently was having an affair with the Chicago mobster Sam Giancana and an affair with John Kennedy in the White House - and there was plenty of telephone traffic that kind of substantiated that - whether she was also an intermediary in these assassination attempts, whether in fact she put the CIA and top officials of the Kennedy administration in touch with the mob, whether in fact she was, kind of through her relationship with Kennedy, an agent of getting the mob involved in the Castro assassination stuff. What did the Church committee ultimately conclude about that?

RISEN: Well, they concluded that she was not an intermediary. But they had to interview her repeatedly. And they interviewed all the mobsters involved who were still alive and Kennedy administration officials and CIA officials. But it really was very awkward for Frank Church to go down this road of investigating the Kennedy administration, John Kennedy's affairs and their attempts to assassinate foreign leaders when Church originally thought he was going to be investigating other kinds of CIA operations. And so it was a very - it was - it took their investigation down a dark path.

DAVIES: You know, we should just note that - since some of these activities involve President Kennedy, including his affair with this woman who was also involved with a Chicago mobster, that the Church hearings themselves came in 1975, you know - what? - a dozen years after the Kennedy assassination, just to set the context.

RISEN: Right.

DAVIES: Just a bit more about the efforts to assassinate Castro. Did they actually - I mean, I guess some of these folks knew people in Cuba who they thought might have access to him. What were some of the plots that never unfolded?

RISEN: Well, yeah, the - through - with the Mafia, they were able to get poisons to Havana. But the people that they had arranged to poison Castro lost their nerve and never went through with it. There's also a belief that Santo Trafficante, who was one of the mobsters involved with the CIA operation, was double-dealing and really made sure that they never killed Castro because he wanted to work with Castro to get new casinos in Havana eventually. And then there were...

DAVIES: Everybody has an angle.

(LAUGHTER)

RISEN: There were other plots that they - that the CIA tried to do on their own, like poison a scuba diving outfit that they arranged to give to Castro as a gift, or they were planning to give him, poison cigar, exploding cigars, you know, things that would - that were able to spread toxins that were supposed to make him bald or lose his beard, all these kind of crazy ideas that never went anywhere. They never actually tried them. But the files that the Church committee found showed all these insane plots that they had tried.

DAVIES: Well, you know, the - Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster who was at the heart of trying to set all this stuff up, was going to testify before the Church committee but did not. Tell us why.

RISEN: Right before - you know, Sam Giancana was being ordered or being subpoenaed to come and testify to the Church committee. And right before, he was to meet with some staffers from the Church committee who were flying out to Chicago to meet him before he testified. He was murdered in his home, Chicago home, while he was cooking sausages in his basement. And the murder has never been solved, but it was clearly a mob hit. And there's been debate ever since about whether it was done to keep him silent and stop him from testifying before the Church committee or because of other problems he had with the rest of the Mafia. My own view is that it was probably a bit of both.

DAVIES: Yeah, this rattled Frank Church, understandably, when, you know, a star witness is suddenly murdered before he can get sworn in. But this would be the first of three potential witnesses or witnesses who would be murdered. Another one was Johnny Roselli, the mobster who got connected - this was later on; his body was discovered in a barrel in Florida - and then a former Chilean diplomat, who was a thorn in the side of the military government ruling Chile, who was killed in a bombing in Washington, D.C. That's three witnesses murdered. Does it seem likely any of them were killed because of their cooperation with the Church Committee?

RISEN: Yes. I do think - I think Johnny Roselli, who was really a star witness before the Church Committee, testified repeatedly - I think he knew that he was going to be killed for talking. Orlando Letelier, who had been the Chilean foreign minister and who is in exile in the United States - it's not been known, prior to my book, that he actually testified before the Church Committee. And he was killed. And it was clear that the Pinochet regime was upset that he was talking to Congress.

DAVIES: In Chile. That's the Chilean regime. Yeah.

RISEN: Yeah. And so I think that there's always - there's been a debate ever since about all three and why they were all murdered. But I believe that the Church Committee played a role in all three.

DAVIES: So the Church Committee looked into a lot of things, including other assassination attempts or plots that the CIA undertook, including one against Patrice Lumumba, a left-leaning leader in the Congo. Was it ever clear if Kennedy - President Kennedy himself or Eisenhower, who was involved in some of these or was president when some of these plots were discussed - was it ever clear if the presidents themselves had approved it?

RISEN: Well, that was - that became a major source of debate about the - in the investigation by the Church Committee. And there was a lot of evidence gathered by the committee and by its investigators that showed, yes, they did know. There was a lot of testimony from CIA officials who made it clear that they'd been - they were following orders from the White House. And then on the other side, there were officials from both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations who said, no, we never - the president would never have ordered these assassinations. By that time, both Kennedy and Eisenhower were dead. Lyndon Johnson, who was involved in some of them, was also dead.

So it was a kind of a difficult decision for the committee to decide how to conclude on this issue. And if you read the reports, they show that the committee had the evidence to show that the presidents did authorize the assassination attempts. But there was also a summary included in their final report that claimed that there was no conclusive evidence of presidential authorization. And that became a major debate. And Frank Church received a lot of criticism at the time for reaching a conclusion that none of the presidents were aware of these plots. And he was accused of trying to protect his old friend, John Kennedy.

DAVIES: We should take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with James Risen. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His new book about the late Senator Frank Church is titled "The Last Honest Man." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author James Risen. He is currently the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. His new book about Frank Church, who held hearings in the 1970s about crimes and cover-ups by America's intelligence agencies, is titled "The Last Honest Man."

There were so many other things that the committee uncovered that we can't get to all of them, but one of them we have to talk about. Among the most galling was the FBI's campaign of surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King. I mean, J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with King. This is kind of a story that - a lot of the stuff has been - come known in recent years, but this was new at the time. Just briefly, what were some of the things that they discovered the FBI did to Martin Luther King?

RISEN: Yeah. I mean, people don't remember that it was the Church Committee that really uncovered the full truth about what the FBI had done to Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King had been become the major target of J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s. He was - J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with King and wanted to discredit him and destroy him from - beginning in the late 1950s, when King began to rise. And they harassed him, wiretapped him, tried to destroy all of his connections to financial and political support, found out eventually that he had affairs with - you know, adulterous affairs. And so they wiretapped his hotels and then sent the wiretaps to him and tried to get him to commit suicide.

DAVIES: Yeah. Just pause over that for a second. They sent him the recordings.

RISEN: Yeah. The FBI was so furious that their previous efforts to harass and embarrass him were not stopping him, that he had actually - you know, was now considered an iconic figure and was - won the Nobel Peace Prize that they collected all of the wiretaps they had about him with - having sexual relations with other women who were not his wife, as they used to say. And they put them all on, like, a mixtape and sent it to him anonymously with a note that said, basically, you know, you have a certain number of days, and you know what to do. And the implication was, he was supposed to commit suicide. And it became very clear to people around King that this was from the FBI because no one else would have had the ability to do what they had - what they were doing.

DAVIES: Did this have any effect on King and those around him, other than their anger at the FBI and the government, of course?

RISEN: Yeah. I think they were deeply frightened, I think, and intimidated. But it didn't stop King. And this all happened at a - years before his assassination. And he continued to rise as a national figure. And one of the last things that the FBI did while he was still alive is really kind of disgusting. They - if you remember, he was in Memphis when he was assassinated. And he had, on previous visits to Memphis, to support the strikers there that - you know, which was why he was - the sanitation workers were on strike in Memphis. And he was there to support them. He had stayed at a white-owned Holiday Inn. And the FBI put out, anonymously, attacks against King for staying in a white-owned hotel instead of staying at the Lorraine hotel, which was Black-owned. And it was at the Lorraine that he was assassinated. And the Church committee looked into whether or not King changed hotels because of the FBI's anonymous criticism of him. And they couldn't find any proof of that. But it was still pretty disgusting.

DAVIES: Which delivered him to the site of his assassination, which certainly fed a lot of speculation. You know, there was a lot of other things that the Church committee uncovered, including the mind control experimentation with LSD that the CIA engaged in over many, many years, most famously resulting in the death of an Army scientist, who fell or jumped or was thrown from a 10th-floor hotel room. There were NSA spying on American citizens that were unveiled. And, you know, when I read about all this, I imagined this creating a huge uproar. But, in fact, for months, the committee took its testimony in closed-door hearings, right? So neither the public nor the media could hear. Were there news reports on these revelations? Or was this closely held for a time?

RISEN: It was interesting because it's a good lesson in - as a reporter, it makes you kind of realize how much you miss (laughter) when you're covering things. Church was very cognizant of the fact that he had always been criticized for being a publicity hound. And so he wanted to do as much as he could behind - you know, in closed doors and then issue final reports that were public. And the Congress at the time also wanted to prove to the public and to the intelligence community that they could keep secrets so that - one of the main goals was to create permanent intelligence oversight committees. And this was like a test run for intelligence oversight.

And so Church did a lot of what he - a lot of his - the investigation behind closed doors. And as a result, he received a lot of criticism in the press for not accomplishing very much and for covering things up. Like, he was criticized heavily for - people thought he was trying to protect John Kennedy because bits and pieces of what they had found about the assassination programs had come out. But it was a very awkward media coverage for quite a while.

DAVIES: Right. Now, he would eventually conduct public hearings. And a report was issued. How did he and the committee handle how much to make public? Did they lay it all out? Did they hold some things back?

RISEN: They laid - the final reports were very comprehensive. They had a report - first report was on the CIA assassination programs, and then they did a final report on everything else. And they held in the fall of 1975 a whole series of hearings on many of the major findings. And their final reports are, really, pretty amazing to read because they lay out the facts of some of the most iconic stories that we now know today about the CIA, the FBI and the NSA - the stories about the CIA and the mob, the stories about harassing Martin Luther King, the way in which the NSA had been spying on American citizens, the way the IRS had been used by the Nixon administration - a whole series of things that we now know as kind of the canon of what we know today about the abuses of the intelligence community. And so for the first time after 30 years, this Church committee really unlocked the closet of the intelligence community and aired all this dirty linen in a whole series of reports that are now pretty iconic.

DAVIES: We'll just take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with James Risen. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, currently the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. His new book about the late Senator Frank Church is titled "The Last Honest Man." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "THE GREAT PRETENDER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen. He has a new book about the late Senator Frank Church, who, in the mid-1970s, held dramatic hearings exposing crimes and cover-ups by American intelligence agencies. He says that Church is more responsible than anyone else in American history for bringing the intelligence community under the rule of law. His book is titled "The Last Honest Man."

You know, the revelations were shocking, dramatic, you know, sensational. But, you know, you're right that in some ways, the important legacy here was ongoing oversight by Congress of the intelligence services. What happened in the way of legislation and ongoing oversight?

RISEN: Yeah, that was the first - the major success, in Church's mind, was that very shortly after the completion of the Church Committee, the Senate voted to create a permanent intelligence committee that would continue to conduct oversight of the CIA and the intelligence community all the time. The Church Committee was created as a temporary committee. It only was supposed to be around for about one year. And it was, as I said, a test run, really, for whether or not Congress would conduct oversight in the future. And that was, in Church's mind, the most important change. But then there were a whole number of other changes. The FISA, which was the legislation that we all are probably familiar with about the NSA in the last...

DAVIES: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Is that what it is?

RISEN: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which, for the first time, brought the NSA and their ability to spy on American citizens under the rule of law. It was passed as a result of the Church Committee. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits corporate bribery overseas, was passed as a result of Church's investigation of ITT and the CIA. And a whole number of administrative and executive rules were passed to govern the CIA and the way the FBI operates.

DAVIES: So I mentioned this at the beginning. I would imagine that you and other people who cover national security and intelligence services get a fair amount of information that comes directly or indirectly from congressional sources. It would be a different world without the Church hearings; wouldn't it?

RISEN: Yeah. I mean, the fact that we now have intelligence oversight by Congress, whether - well, a lot of times, it's not very good, and it - they tend to be captured by the agencies that they're supposed to be overseeing. It still forces a level of discipline on the intelligence community that never existed before the Church Committee. And they are - there are laws and rules that they have to follow that didn't exist before the Church Committee. And it's really - if you talk to longtime people in the intelligence community, there's - the Church Committee was a watershed moment in the history of the CIA. There's the - what they could get away with prior to the Church Committee and what they had to do after the Church Committee. They were suddenly brought under the rule of law in a way that they were really not used to and which today, they still - despite all the problems we have with them, they still face many of the rules that were imposed by the Church Committee.

DAVIES: Well, James Risen, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

RISEN: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: James Risen is the senior national security correspondent for The Intercept. His new book about the late Senator Frank Church is "The Last Honest Man: The CIA, The FBI, The Mafia, And The Kennedys - And One Senator's Fight To Save Democracy."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LOUNGE LIZARDS' "NO PAIN FOR CAKES")

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, parking. In cities, finding a parking spot can drive you mad. Author Henry Grabar says parking codes, parking lots and garages have shaped the landscape of cities and suburbs and limited the creation of affordable housing. His new book is "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and with a welcome to our new co-host, Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LOUNGE LIZARDS' "NO PAIN FOR CAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.