The original purpose of the National Security Agency, according to a recent essay by Frederick A.O. “Fritz” Schwarz Jr., was to “decode encrypted telegrams sent home by foreign ambassadors.” Yet, for 30 years, the U.S. cryptologic apparatus exceeded its mandate by obtaining copies of most telegrams sent overseas.
Such are the perils of secrecy: Intelligence agencies like the NSA are sheltered from public scrutiny and therefore prone to mission creep.
In the essay, posted last week on the website for The Nation, Schwarz called for a new select committee to document the trespasses of U.S. intelligence agencies after 9/11. The timing was fortuitous: One day before the essay appeared, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of hacking into Senate computers.
“The country needs a new nonpartisan, fact-based, and comprehensive investigation of our secret government,” wrote Schwarz, who served as chief counsel of the “Church Committee,” the first congressional panel to expose the abuses of the U.S. intelligence community in the post-World War II period. Officially called the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, the panel was led by the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, in 1975 and 1976.
“The Church Committee uncovered shocking conduct by numerous agencies, including the FBI, CIA, and NSA,” Schwarz wrote. “For example, the FBI tried to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide [and] the CIA enlisted the Mafia in its attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.”¦ Many expected the Church Committee to focus its attention on exposing the abuses of the Nixon administration. But the committee’s most important finding was that every administration from FDR’s through Nixon’s — four Democrats and two Republicans — had abused its secret powers.”
Speaking on the phone from New York, the 78-year-old elaborated on his view that neither of the existing Intelligence committees was equipped to carry out this mission.
“The benefit of a new special committee is that it can have a broader mandate, in terms of time and scope,” he said. “It’s not just the intelligence agencies, but Congress itself that needs to be looked at. How well have the House and Senate Intelligence committees been performing their oversight function?”
This is not the first time Schwarz has called for the creation of a new intelligence panel. In the late 2000s, he testified before Congress on the need to investigate dubious practices like waterboarding and warrantless wiretapping. His recommendation was never taken up by lawmakers, in part because “an investigation then would have focused only on the Bush/Cheney administration, making partisan splits more likely,” he wrote.
Schwarz, now chief counsel of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, is currently writing a book about government secrecy entitled Democracy in the Dark.
Born in New York City, Schwarz is the great grandson of toy titan Frederick August Otto Schwarz, who emigrated from Germany in 1856 and later founded FAO Schwarz. (Early in his career, the younger Schwarz used this fact to disarm judges. “It didn’t guarantee that I was going to win my cases,” he said, “but it created a favorable environment.”)
After graduating from Harvard in 1957, Schwarz enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. During his third year, he helped organize a demonstration outside the Woolworth store in Cambridge, Mass., in sympathy with sit-in protests in Greensboro, N.C.
His rebellious streak continued into his years as a litigator with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, where he wrote a piece in 1965 condemning apartheid and urging U.S. businesses not to do business with South Africa. One of the firm’s clients at the time was an American bank doing exactly that.
In 1975, Schwarz was asked by Church to serve as chief counsel of the new select committee, set up after questionable activities by U.S. intelligence agencies were brought to light by the Watergate scandal. The panel’s final report called for, among other reforms, banishment of illegal wiretaps, harassment of political dissidents, and assassination plots against foreign leaders.
In the years since, Schwarz has served as corporation counsel under former New York Mayor Ed Koch and chairman of the New York City Campaign Finance Board. He has written two books: Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror and Nigeria: The Tribes, the Nation, or the Race — The Politics of Independence.
Schwarz is married to Frederica Perera, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Schwarz is scheduled to receive the Nation Institute’s 2014 Ridenhour Courage Prize on April 30 at the National Press Club in Washington. The two past recipients were climate scientist James Hansen and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.