Spies, Civil Liberties, and the Senate: the 1975 Church Enquiry

PhD Thesis, Dafydd Townley:

This research examined the relationship between US public opinion and national security policy, focusing on the role that public opinion played during the Year of Intelligence, the sixteen-month investigation by Congress into alleged domestic abuses by the US intelligence community. The period, between January 1975 and April 1976, saw the innermost secrets of various US intelligence agencies laid bare before the world as a result of televised public hearings and investigative journalism.

The research analyses what both President Gerald R. Ford and Congress defined as public opinion, and how they used such information to shape their strategic decisions concerning national security. The study investigates the way in which Congress responded to public opinion during the creation of the Church Committee, and how great an influence public opinion had on the objectives and methods of the Church Committee investigation. The research also assesses whether the Church Committee fulfilled its obligations to the Senate and the American public and considers the criticism that some contemporaries and academics have levelled at the committee’s chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho.

Church Committee Public Hearing


Frank Church on campaign for the 1976 Democratic Presidential Nomination

Using extensive archival evidence supported by oral history interviews, the research identifies that public opinion played an importance role during the Year of Intelligence and, as a consequence, national security policy. The significance of the role is clearly illustrated by the research’s contrast of the failure of the Ford administration to achieve any of its strategic objectives, and the success of Congress in gaining substantial reform to congressional oversight of the intelligence community. However, the results of this study illustrate that public opinion does not dominate national security policy; it is more accurate to say that national security policy and public opinion interact in a reciprocal relationship.

For this PhD Dafydd received funding from:

  • Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation Award (2016)
  • American Politics Group Ros Davies Memorial Travel Grant (2016)
  • Royal Historical Society Travel Award (2017)

Images from Frank Church Collection, Albertson’s Library Special Collections, Boise State University, and Gerald R. Ford Library.