In 1975, Frank Church became the chairman of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. This committee investigated alleged abuses of power by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Intelligence. The committee looked at the case of Fred Hampton and discovered that William O'Neal, Hampton's bodyguard, was a FBI agent-provocateur who, days before the raid, had delivered an apartment floor-plan to the Bureau with an "X" marking Hampton's bed. Ballistic evidence showed that most bullets during the raid were aimed at Hampton's bedroom.
Church's committee also discovered that the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation had sent anonymous letters attacking the political beliefs of targets in order to induce their employers to fire them. Similar letters were sent to spouses in an effort to destroy marriages. The committee also documented criminal break-ins, the theft of membership lists and misinformation campaigns aimed at provoking violent attacks against targeted individuals.
One of those people targeted was Martin Luther King. The FBI mailed King a tape recording made from microphones hidden in hotel rooms. The tape was accompanied by a note suggesting that the recording would be released to the public unless King committed suicide.
In its final report, issued in April 1976, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities concluded: Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the Constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association and privacy. It has done so primarily because the Constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied. The committee also revealed details for the first time of what the CIA called Operation Mockingbird.
The committee also reported that the Central Intelligence Agency had withheld from the Warren Commission, during its investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, information about plots by the Government of the United States against Fidel Castro of Cuba; and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had conducted a counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) against Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1976 Thomas N. Downing began campaigning for a new investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Downing said he was certain that Kennedy had been killed as a result of a conspiracy. He believed that the recent deaths of Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli were highly significant. He also believed that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had withheld important information from the Warren Commission. Downing was not alone in taking this view. In 1976, a Detroit News poll indicated that 87% of the American population did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who killed Kennedy.
Coretta Scott King, was also calling for her husband's murder to be looked at by a Senate Committee. It was suggested that there was more chance of success if these two investigations could be combined. Henry Gonzalez and Walter E. Fauntroy joined Downing in his campaign and in 1976 Congress voted to create a 12-member committee to investigate the deaths of Kennedy and King.
Thomas N. Downing named Richard Sprague as chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Gaeton Fonzi was to later say: "Sprague was known as tough, tenacious and independent. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind when I heard of Sprague's appointment that the Kennedy assassination would finally get what it needed: a no-holds-barred, honest investigation. Which just goes to show how ignorant of the ways of Washington both Sprague and I were".
Sprague quickly assembled a staff of 170 lawyers, investigators and researchers. On 8th December, 1976, Sprague submitted a 1977 budget of $6.5 million. Frank Thompson, Chairman of the House Administration Committee made it clear he opposed the idea of so much money being spent on the investigation. Soon afterwards smear stories against Sprague began appearing in the press. David B. Burnham of The New York Times reported that Sprague had mishandled a homicide case involving the son of a friend. Members of Congress joined in the attacks and Robert E. Bauman of Maryland claimed that Sprague had a "checkered career" and was not to be trusted. Richard Kelly of Florida called the House Select Committee on Assassinations a "multimillion-dollar fishing expedition for the benefit of a bunch of publicity seekers."
Probably the most important criticism came from Eldon J. Rudd of Arizona, a former FBI agent who had worked on the original investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy, declared the Committee had "already fanned the flames of rumour, distortion and unwanted distrust of law inforcement agencies." However, Walter E. Fauntroy defended the work of Sprague: "threshold inquiries by a thoroughly professional staff... in the last three months have produced literally a thousand questions unanswered by the investigations of record."
On 2nd February, 1978, Henry Gonzalez replaced Thomas N. Downing as chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Gonzalez immediately sacked Sprague as chief counsel. Sprague claimed that only the fill committee had the power to dismiss him. Walter E. Fauntroy agreed with Sprague and launched a campaign to keep him as chief counsel. On 1st March, Gonzalez resigned describing Sprague as "an unconscionable scoundrel" Louis Stokes of Ohio was now appointed as the new chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. After a meeting with Stokes on 29th March, Sprague agreed to resign and he was replaced by G. Robert Blakey.
Sprague later told Gaeton Fonzi that the real reason he was removed as chief counsel was because he insisted on asking questions about the CIA operations in Mexico. Fonzi argued that "Sprague... wanted complete information about the CIA's operation in Mexico City and total access to all its employees who may have had anything to do with the photographs, tape recordings and transcripts. The Agency balked. Sprague pushed harder. Finally the Agency agreed that Sprague could have access to the information if he agreed to sign a CIA Secrecy Agreement. Sprague refused.... "How," he asked, "can I possible sign an agreement with an agency I'm supposed to be investigating?"
Two subcommittees were created - a subcommittee on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with Richardson Preyer of North Carolina as its chairman, and a subcommittee on the assassination of Martin Luther King, with Walter E. Fauntroy, as its chairman. The staff was divided into two task forces designated to assist each of the subcommittees.
The House Select Committee of Assassinations set up a panel of forensic pathologists to examine the autopsy materials and other medical evidence. Most of the members concluded that two bullets, both fired from the rear, struck Kennedy. However, one member, Cyril H. Wecht, rejected this theory claiming it was medically impossible, and suggested that at least one bullet had been fired from the right front.
During the investigation the committee discovered that the Dallas Police had a recording of the assassination. A microphone, mounted on one of the motorcycles escorting the motorcade, had picked up sounds in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination. Acoustic experts analysed the recording and were able to distinguish four rifle shots. They concluded that there was a 95 per cent probability of the third bullet was fired from the Grassy Knoll.
As a result of this acoustic evidence G. Robert Blakey was able to state that there were "four shots, over a total period of 7.91 seconds were fired at the Presidential limousine. The first, second and fourth came from the Depository; the third from the Grassy Knoll."
The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that "scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy." It added that "on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.
The HSCA was "unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy." However, it did discover evidence to suggest that anti-Castro Cubans were involved in the assassination. For example, an undercover agent heard Nestor Castellanos tell a meeting of anti-Castro Cubans, "We're waiting for Kennedy (on) the 22nd. We're going to see him in one way or another." The committee also obtained evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald met David Ferrie in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. It concluded that "individuals active in anti-Castro activities had the motive, means, and opportunity to assassinate President Kennedy".
The committee claimed that the Warren Commission "failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President." The report was also highly critical of the Secret Service: "The Secret Service was deficient in the performance of its duties. The Secret Service possessed information that was not properly analyzed, investigated or used by the Secret Service in connection with the President's trip to Dallas; in addition, Secret Service agents in the motorcade were inadequately prepared to protect the President from a sniper."
G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings wrote an account of the HSCA investigation entitled The Plot to Kill the President (1981). In the book Blakey and Billings argue that there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. He believes that Lee Harvey Oswald was involved but believes that there was at least one gunman firing from the Grassy Knoll. Blakey came to the conclusion that the Mafia boss, Carlos Marcello, organized the assassination.
Gary Cornwell, Deputy Chief Counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations published his own account of the investigation, Real Answers, in 1999. It is highly critical of the FBI and the Warren Commission investigations. As Cornwell points out: "The case should have been solved in 1963 and 1964, and because the government decided not to look for the real answers when it had the chance, the opportunity was probably lost forever."
The House Select Committee on Assassinations refused to publish all the documents obtained during the investigation. The CIA forced all members of the committee, all staff members, all consultants to the committee, and several independent researchers involved in the investigation, to sign a Nondisclosure Agreement. As Richard E. Sprague, one of the consultants, later explained: "First, it binds the signer, if a consultant, to never reveal that he is working for the committee. Second, it prevents the signer from ever revealing to anyone in perpetuity, any information he has learned about the committee's work as a result of working for the committee. Third, it gives the committee and the House, after the committee terminates, the power to take legal action against the signer, in a court named by the committee or the House, in case the committee believes the signer has violated the agreement. Fourth, the signer agrees to pay the court costs for such a suit in the event he loses the suit."
It has been announced that all House Select Committee on Assassinations documents will be published by 2017.