Sunday, May 14, 2006

Heroic foresight

Last night at Firedoglake, Pachacutec asked readers to name their heroes. I chimed in, noting that my great hero was my granddad, and that my writing heroes are Norman Maclean and Raymond Carver.

But my political hero was my home state's senior senator, Frank Church, whose final campaign I covered in 1980. I was raised a Republican and worked on Republican campaigns as a teenager, but always respected Church politically and even campaigned briefly for him in 1976, when he ran for the presidency. I first met him outside of campaign appearances in 1978, when we had gone fishing on Lake Pend Oreille with my then-boss, Pete Thompson. I was very young at the time -- all of 21 -- and Church was kind enough to give me considerable access and time, including personal interviews and the like, when I needed them.

I've written previously about the keenness of Church's insights, particularly what he saw coming down the road for America. I strongly believe that much of what he warned about back then is coming true today, and much of what he stood for then remains relevant today as well.

The Firedoglake discussion spurred some keen memories for me, especially his early and principled opposition to the Vietnam War. Church had served with honor in World War II, but his critics, like John Kerry's today, still impugned his patriotism and his service. Moreover, Church had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, but had enough courage to reverse course within the year -- something today's Democrats could stand to learn from.

Church is best remembered for his investigations into the CIA. The resulting reforms brought the intelligence arm of the executive branch under public control for the first time -- reforms that are now being undone by the Bush administration.

It was in his role of chair of the intelligence committee that Church turned his sights on the NSA, and was appalled by what he found regarding its power of surveillance:
"That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people," he said in 1975, "and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."

He added that if a dictator ever took over, the NSA "could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back."

His warning, I think, was a real clarion call for those of us now confronting the NSA's sweeping powers under the Bush administration:
"I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge," Senator Church said. "I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."

I recall that, at the time, Church -- who was a thoughtful man -- was derided for engaging in hysterical hyperbole.

Now, as with so many other of his warnings, he looks to be a real prophet.

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