A Season of Inquiry Revisited: The Church Committee Confronts America’s Spy Agencies

The original edition of A Season of Inquiry, first published in 1986, offered the public an insider’s account of the workings of the Church investigation and of the nation’s espionage agencies, including the CIA’s covert action against the democratically elected regime of Salvador Allende in Chile. In this new edition the author, then a special assistant to Senator Church, revisits the circumstances surrounding the investigation and subsequent, shocking report and reminds us its continuing relevance—in instances such as the Iran-Contra investigation, the 9/11 and Iraqi WMD intelligence failures, the Edward Snowden affair, and, most recently, the US Senate Torture Report.

A Season of Inquiry Revisited details a moment that was at once a high-water mark for intelligence accountability in the United States and a low point in the American people’s trust of the agencies sworn to protect them. Coming on the heels of the Watergate scandal, the wrenching experience of the Vietnam War, and the release of the Pentagon Papers, revelations of domestic spying sent a shock wave through the nation and spurred the political establishment to action. While a White House panel focused narrowly on CIA spying at home, the Church Committee enlarged its investigation to include the FBI, the National Security Agency, and a host of other primarily military espionage services, as well as CIA assassination plots around the world. Johnson describes the political players and their pursuit of information, the abuses they discovered, and the remarkable reports they compiled, chronicling a litany of disquieting operations carried out against American citizens and foreign leaders in Latin America and Africa. With a new preface and postscript along with an updated chronology and appendix, this new edition revisits a moment of reckoning in the halls of power. The nation has now arrived at a time when the lessons of the Church Committee warrant special remembering.

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas (December 4, 2015)


“Johnson writes with grace and sense of drama. In addition to the revealing details he provides, he adeptly recreates the atmosphere in which the Senate conducted the hearings and enacted the reforms.”—The Historian

“Forty years after the Church Committee lifted the veil on the covert operations of the FBI and CIA, the national security issues that the investigation raised remain all too relevant. As both a committee insider and a scholar, Loch Johnson provides a lively, reliable, and insightful account of how that investigation operated, what it uncovered, and what reforms it prompted.”—Donald A. Ritchie, author of The United States Congress: A Very Short Introduction

“Loch Johnson is the nation’s leading political scientist, when it comes to the study of US intelligence agencies and issues. A Season of Inquiry Revisited is great reading for anyone with an interest in congressional and intelligence history, not to mention present-day controversies about intelligence.”—David Barrett, author of The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy

A Season of Inquiry Revisited is the vivid—and often dramatic—inside account of a crucial security investigation and, for four decades, the only work of its kind. . . . an important, readable book that demands attention.”—John Prados, author of The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power

Praise for the original edition:

“An engaging book that provides important insights into the real world of Capitol Hill. Reveals just how uneven the odds are—as they are now—when senators and their staffs go up against the intelligence agencies.”—New York Times Book Review

“I have read Johnson’s study with interest and admiration, for it strikes me as at once fair and, intellectually, quite exciting.”—Robin W. Winks, author of Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939–1961

About the Author


Amazon Review:

A lot of politics

The book does a nice job of summarizing the abuses that brought the Church committee into being but that summation is only a small portion of the book. The majority is based on the political wrangling going within the committee and between the White House – CIA and committee.

Bottom line it seems the committee was able to put the CIA on notice but little more.

In 2017 well placed leaks seem to be a matter of course as if the agency’s are running a domestic operation for a political ends. At the same time well documented subversive organizations, like George Soros open society, are allowed to operate without restraint.

What the book makes clear is that balancing security with liberty is no small task and it appears liberty is more often on the losing end.

Excellent Study of a Senate Select Committee in Action

A Season of Inquiry Revisited: The Church Committee Confronts America’s Spy Agencies is a reprint of a 1985 book by Lock Johnson, a political scientist who served as a staffer and aid to Frank Church on the Senate committee investigating U.S. intelligence from 1975-76. This volume contains a new Forward and Postscript as well as three appendices containing “US Intelligence Leadership, 1947-2015,” an organizational chart of American intelligence, and “Relevant Intelligence Amendments and Acts.” Since Johnson served on the Church Committee, this work is his recollection of what happened supplemented by interviews with the participants and relevant documents and secondary literature.

Johnson begins with the newspaper story that served as the catalyst for each house of Congress to appoint a select committee to investigate the intelligence community, the first such inquiry since the passage of the 1947 National Security Act. The author describes in detail how a congressional investigative committee works and all the pitfalls that it faces. While the House committee is mentioned, the focus is on the Senate committee.

The Church Committee faced numerous obstacles during its sixteen-month life. The CIA, FBI, and other agencies did not always cooperate in releasing requested documents and providing testimony. The White House put up many roadblocks along the way as well, including forming its own committee of inquiry and issuing executive actions that sought to circumvent the need for Congressional reform. There were also statements from the Ford Administration and intelligence personnel that the investigations were damaging American intelligence activities and putting U.S. security at risk. When Richard Welch, CIA Station Chief in Athens, was assassinated, the Congressional investigators were blamed for leaking his name and thus causing his death although neither committee had his name or identified him as a CIA employee.

There was division in the Church Committee that eventually broke along party lines. Republican Senators John Tower, Barry Goldwater, and, to a lesser extent, Howard Baker believed that the committee went too far in uncovering dirty linen in the intelligence community, especially its lengthy focus on assassination plots against Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, and several others. On the other side, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale lamented that the committee did not go far enough in its inquiries into illegal acts.

The Senate debate over reform measure suggested by the Church Committee and Abraham Ribicoff’s Rules Committee was heated. Opponents of restrictions, like Goldwater, Tower, John Stennis, and Strom Thurmond, raised the jurisdiction question as intelligence matters were part of the Judicial, Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Appropriations Committees. The main attack levelled against the creation of a Senate Intelligence Committee centered on efforts to remove military intelligence from its purview and leave it with the Armed Services Committee. However, this effort failed by a two to one vote. In the end an intelligence committee was established with both appropriation and subpoena power. However, as Johnson points out, “Congress never could seem to decide whether or not the major problem before it was how to curb intelligence abuses or how to maintain secrecy.” (254) This issue is still with us today.

This work also demonstrates how hard it is to manage a congressional investigation inquiry. The lawyers and non-lawyers constantly quarreled. Church was not a manager and his running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination led him toward the end to focus more on the campaign than on producing a final report. Yet, Johnson argues that the Idaho Senator did not politicize the committee for personal ambition.

In the Postscript, the author concludes that the years following 1976 have been an improvement over the 1947 to 1974 “Era of Trust,” but still abuses and failures have occurred. He briefly cites as examples Iran-Contra, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the use of torture after 9/11, and the NSA collection of phone data on U.S. citizens.

Though thirty years old, this is still an enlightening study of the workings of a congressional investigative committee. It also raises issues of how should intelligence function in a democratic society. Should there be oversight of intelligence activities or should intelligence officers be trusted to always do the right thing? Also, what is the proper relationship between Congress and the Executive branch when it comes to national security? The University of Kansas Press should be congratulated for reprinting Johnson’s original 1985 study.

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