First Amendment Rights and Access to Opinions

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In 1972, five burglars were arrested following the break-in of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. Uncovered, was a plan concocted by members of the official organization of President Nixon’s campaign to photograph campaign documents and install listening devices in telephones. Taped recordings of President Nixon’s conversations revealed the President had clearly obstructed justice by directing members of the CIA to halt the FBI investigation into the DNC break-in.

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Facing certain impeachment and conviction, President Nixon resigned the Presidency and subsequently pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. The Watergate scandal created a growing concern in the American public and Congress about the ability of the government to spy on its own citizens. During the course of the Senate Watergate Committee investigation, past executive branch direction of national intelligence agencies to carry out constitutionally questionable domestic security operations came to light. Additionally, a New York Times article published by Seymour Hersh claimed that the CIA had been spying on anti-war activists for more than a decade, violating the agencies charter. In response to these revelations, Congress launched the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House to conduct an investigation into the nation’s secret agencies and programs.

The Church Committee investigated and identified a wide range of intelligence abuses by federal agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Internal Revenue Service, and National Security Agency. In the course of their work, investigators identified programs that had never before been known to the American public, including NSA’s Projects SHAMROCK and MINARET, programs which monitored wire communications to and from the United States and shared some of that data with other intelligence agencies. Committee staff researched the FBI’s long-running program of covert action designed to disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order, known as COINTELPRO. The FBI included among the program’s many targets organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as local, state, and federal elected officials.
Investigators determined that, beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and continuing through the early 1970s, intelligence excesses, at home and abroad, were not the product of any single party, administration, or man, but had developed as America rose to a become a superpower during a global Cold War. The committee observed that there is no inherent constitutional authority for the President or any intelligence agency to violate the law, and recommended strengthening oversight of intelligence activities. The Church Committee’s investigative work led to reform efforts throughout the intelligence community. Congress approved legislation to provide for greater checks and balances of the intelligence community. In 1976 the Senate approvedSenate Resolution 400, establishing theSenate Select Committee on Intelligence,

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