The Ford Administration Used a CIA Agent's Killing to Silence Sen. Frank ChurchBreaking News
tags: CIA, espionage, Church committee, Frank Church
ON THE NIGHT of December 23, 1975, Ron Estes, the CIA’s deputy station chief in Athens, was lounging on the couch in his girlfriend’s apartment when the man who worked as a driver for his boss, Richard Welch, burst through the front door.
“A shooting, and Mr. Welch is down,” the driver yelled.
WELCH’S ASSASSINATION WAS huge news and struck a painful political nerve in Washington, coming at the end of a year of stunning disclosures about the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community by the Senate’s Church Committee, which, throughout 1975, had been conducting the first major congressional investigation of the CIA. The Church Committee uncovered so many secrets and generated so many headlines that pundits were already calling 1975 “the Year of Intelligence.”
Before the Church Committee was created in January 1975, there had been no real congressional oversight of the CIA. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees did not yet exist, and the Church Committee’s unprecedented investigation marked the first effort by Congress to unearth decades of abusive and illegal acts secretly committed by the CIA — and to curb its power.
Sen. Frank Church, the liberal Democrat from Idaho who chaired the committee, had come to believe that the future of American democracy was threatened by the rise of a permanent and largely unaccountable national security state, and he sensed that at the heart of that secret government was a lawless intelligence community. Church was convinced it had to be reined in to save the nation.
To a great degree, he succeeded. By disclosing a series of shocking abuses of power and spearheading wide-ranging reforms, Church and his Committee created rules of the road for the intelligence community that largely remain in place today. More than anyone else in American history, Church is responsible for bringing the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the rest of the government’s intelligence apparatus under the rule of law.
But first, Church and his committee had to withstand a brutal counterattack launched by a Republican White House and the CIA, both of which wanted to blunt Church’s reform efforts. The White House and CIA quickly realized that the Welch killing, which occurred just as the Church Committee was finishing its investigations and preparing its final report and recommendations for reform, could be used as a political weapon. President Gerald Ford’s White House and the agency falsely sought to blame the Church Committee for Welch’s murder, claiming, without any evidence, that its investigations had somehow exposed Welch’s identity and left him vulnerable to assassination.
There was absolutely no truth to the claims, but the disinformation campaign was effective. The Ford administration’s use of the Welch murder to discredit the Church Committee was a model of propaganda and disinformation; an internal CIA history later praised the “skillful steps” that the agency and the White House “took to exploit the Welch murder to U.S. intelligence benefit.”