Hawkish conservatives today must secretly reserve a special affection for the late Idaho Democrat Frank Church; after all, he provided them with the cudgel they've since used to batter liberal critics of the U.S. intelligence community. As chair of the Senate's 1975 intelligence investigation, Church famously characterized the Central Intelligence Agency as a "rogue elephant rampaging out of control." He was struggling to describe the lack of any clear presidential authorization for the agency's bungled assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. But to Church's critics, the "rogue elephant" comment came to epitomize the barnstorming liberal senator's hopelessly naive approach to intelligence. What president, they asked, would leave behind a written assassination order? Who was Church kidding? And how dare the senator--gearing up to run for president--grandstand at the expense of national security?

In the wake of September 11, we've been hearing "rogue elephant" again. The hawks have flung blame all around for the massive intelligence failure that permitted the September attacks, targeting Bill Clinton, CIA Director George Tenet, and the defenseless Frank Church. September 11 was Church's fault, these critics explain, because his bipartisan committee--which probed not just CIA assassination plots but covert operations, domestic-mail-intercept programs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's hounding of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other abuses--broke the spirit of the nation's intelligence community by exposing its embarrassing missteps.

The Church bashing began the day of the World Trade Center massacre on ABC, when former Secretary of State James Baker said that Church's hearings had caused us to "unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities." The allegation was soon repeated by Republican Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri and numerous conservative commentators. The Wall Street Journal editorial page called the opening of Church's public hearings "the moment that our nation moved from an intelligence to anti-intelligence footing." And the spy-mongering novelist Tom Clancy attacked Church on Fox News's O'Reilly Factor: "The CIA was gutted by people on the political left who don't like intelligence operations," he said. "And as a result of that, as an indirect result of that, we've lost 5,000 citizens last week."

On its face, the notion that anything that happened 26 years ago could explain intelligence lapses today seems implausible. After all, The Washington Post recently revealed a 1999 CIA plot to train Pakistani intelligence operatives to go in and nab Osama bin Laden. The covert plan failed not because of the historic gutlessness of U.S. liberals but because of a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf (now the president of Pakistan), who called it off. The Clinton administration was behind the CIA plan all the way.

Church--caricatured as the quintessential dovish liberal--gets accused of devaluing and misunderstanding intelligence, even though he was himself an army intelligence officer in World War II. All these innuendos threaten to obscure the core lessons of Church's investigation. According to the Washington State University historian Leroy Ashby, coauthor (with Rod Gramer) of the Church biography Fighting the Odds, the committee provided the American public with "a kind of education about the hidden side of government. And that hidden side very much affected what happened abroad, with unintended consequences." At a time when we will need to strengthen and rely on the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon intelligence agencies like never before, we can't afford to lose this sobering perspective.

It's important today to recall that the object of much of the Church committee's investigation were the abuses the CIA and other intelligence agencies inflicted on Americans here at home. They included the Huston Plan, a proposal to have the agencies infiltrate and disrupt student and other dissenting organizations; Operation HT Lingual, in which the CIA had for 20 years been opening the mail that Americans (including Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey) had sent to the Soviet bloc; and other operations that kept files, ran wiretaps, and performed medical experiments on U.S. citizens.

Although the CIA had ballooned to the size of the State Department by the late 1950s, prior to 1975 the U.S. intelligence community had never undergone significant congressional scrutiny. The laissez-faire attitude was encapsulated by a remark to Church from the Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts: "It's better for gentlemen not to know what's going on." But after a 1974 New York Times series by Seymour Hersh revealed that the CIA had conducted "massive" illegal spying activities against American antiwar protesters and dissidents, Congress and the executive branch convulsed into action. Three separate bodies were formed to investigate the intelligence services: Church's committee in the Senate, a committee headed by New York Democrat Otis Pike in the House of Representatives, and a commission led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

The Watergate hearings lingered in recent memory, and Church was in some sense the congressional equivalent of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The amount of information amassed by his committee of 11 senators and more than 100 staff members was staggering: 800 interviews, 110,000 pages of documents. As the University of Georgia political scientist and Church-committee staffer Loch K. Johnson describes in his 1985 account Season of Inquiry, the committee's reports added up to "a stack of green-covered Senate publications standing over two feet high and numbering several thousand pages." And as the embarrassing revelations tumbled out--that the CIA had kept lethal shellfish poisons despite an order from President Nixon to destroy them, for example, or that it had administered LSD to "unwitting" human subjects--the Ford administration dug in its heels. Indeed, the rhetoric of "dismantling" and "crippling" the CIA comes from ur-Realpolitickers Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.

Actually, the Church committee was much more moderate in its dealings with the executive branch than the Pike committee was. After numerous clashes with the administration over classified documents, Pike's committee was finally overruled by the full House of Representatives and saw its report censored. The Rockefeller Commission, meanwhile, was too close to Ford and Kissinger and failed to delve deeply into the CIA's assassination attempts, thus leaving that task to the Church committee. It was Church's ability to walk a middle road in his inquiry that made him particularly effective--though it also, perhaps, ensured that he would be hated.

Moreover, it is a myth that Church somehow opposed covert operations. He simply believed that they should be conducted only "in a national emergency or in cases where intervention is clearly in tune with our traditional principles." Church wanted to get the CIA out of the affairs of third-world nations and back to its primary purpose: gathering intelligence. This push both to unearth the agency's skeletons and to redirect its energies was welcomed by the CIA's then-Director William Colby, who himself hoped to clean house in an attempt to rehabilitate the agency's image. As Colby later wrote:

I believed that Congress was within its constitutional rights to undertake a long-overdue and thoroughgoing review of the agency and the intelligence community. I did not share the view that intelligence was solely a function of the Executive Branch and must be protected from Congressional prying. Quite the contrary.

Nevertheless, some CIA officers in the Directorate of Operations (DO) never forgave Colby for exposing their "crown jewels" to Church, explains Melvin Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former CIA Soviet analyst. "When Colby died, I didn't see one DO luminary attend that funeral," remembers Goodman. "There was just tremendous contempt for him. They basically put out the word that Church was the turning point." Because of Church, the CIA's freewheeling cowboy era was over.

Probably the most malicious attack on Church suggests that his committee's activities compromised CIA operatives overseas. Following September 11, for example, the American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., wrote that Church's hearings "betrayed CIA agents and operations." This intimation has its roots in Christmas Day, 1975, when Richard Skeffington Welch, the CIA station chief in Greece, was assassinated. Welch's death was instantly used against the Church committee for political gain. Many CIA agents killed in the line of duty are memorialized only by anonymous stars in the lobby of the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia--but NBC's Today Show covered the airlifting of Welch's body back to the United States, and President Ford attended his funeral with various luminaries. The chief counsel of the Church committee remarked that intelligence defenders "danced on the grave of Richard Welch in the most cynical way." Following Welch's assassination, Church received death threats and letters calling him a murderer.

The truth is that Church stuck to his promise to Colby that there would be "no dismantling and no exposing of agents to danger. No sources will be compromised." The committee made sure that it received no names of active agents, so that none could be revealed. Colby's successor as CIA director, George H.W. Bush, fully admitted that Welch's death had nothing to do with the investigation. In fact, Welch had been warned not to live in the Athens home that his CIA predecessors had occupied, because it was "notorious." And the Greek media had identified him as a CIA officer. Yet when Church ran for re-election in 1980, Republican Senator Jim McClure of Idaho publicly blamed him for Welch's death. Church lost by just over 4,000 votes.

The chief legacies of the Church committee--besides President Ford's executive order banning political assassinations, a key policy change resulting from the 1975 CIA probes--were the standing House and Senate intelligence committees formed after the investigation. How such oversight could have hamstrung the CIA is not clear. If anything, the committees were too lax with William Casey, the Reagan-era CIA director who easily misled them about the agency's dangerous mining of harbors in Nicaragua.

"There were not a great many things that Church took off the table," explains Frederick Hitz, director of the Project on International Intelligence at Princeton's Center for International Studies, who was inspector general of the CIA during the elder Bush's administration. Even if Church's investigation led to a "down period" for CIA activities, Hitz observes, "remember the Reagan period, in which Bill Casey came in and, if you will, sort of turned the spigots on again." The CIA saw a 50 percent increase in appropriations in the first three Reagan budgets. And the Church-inspired congressional oversight structure was obviously not sufficient to head off the Iran-contra affair.

In fact, the backlash over Welch's death prevented many Church-committee recommendations, such as a charter for the intelligence community, from being enacted. But Church's main triumph was informational, not legislative. He made Americans take a hard look at the dark side of government secrecy. "Our society has drawn its inspiration from the biblical injunction 'Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,'" he said. For the CIA, which displays the same quotation on the wall of its lobby in Langley, Church's reading was probably a novel one. Many CIA officers likely felt that the general importance of knowing the truth didn't extend to the agency's crimes and indiscretions, but Church took a broader view. As he had stated in 1975 before a rare closed session of the full U.S. Senate, convened to consider his committee's assassination report: "We must remain a people who confront our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them. If we do not, we will decline. But if we do, our future will be worthy of the best of our past."