Although the Church Committee's investigation into abuses of the CIA, FBI and NSA was a watershed moment in American history, few books have been written with a focus on Frank Church. James Risen has added to this story by writing “The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys—and One Senator's Fight to Save Democracy”, which is essentially a biography of Church, and is an important contribution to understanding the workings of the Church Committee.

Frank Church was elected to the United States Senate at age 32 from Idaho. As a Democrat from a conservative state, he dealt with local political conflicts but was popular in Idaho, and is still the last Democratic senator elected in Idaho. He had been a supporter of the war in Vietnam but had turned against it. Furthermore he objected to the National Security State operating outside of the will the electorate. He was able to foresee that the future of the country would be one of perpetual war and conflict if these organizations were able to operate without oversight. The author, James Risen, credits the Church committee for putting in place some oversight of these organizations, especially the CIA. The United States Senate Committee on Intelligence was created as a result, and is ostensibly responsible for CIA oversight. Recently the committee attempted some oversight of the CIA's torture program in Iraq and Afghanistan. The final report was withheld from the public, although a summary was released. This author believes that the National Security State has overcome these obstacles and is still responsible for the continuation of the violent American Empire.

Risen reports that because the Church committee followed the Watergate hearings it did not gather the same amount of public interest in a country exhausted by the trauma of Watergate and Nixon's subsequent resignation. The investigation hearkens back to a time when members of Congress were able to work together when necessary. Gerald Ford was the un-elected President in the wake of Nixon's resignation, and J Edgar Hoover as FBI director. Richard Helms had deceived congress in defense of the agency, but he had been replaced by Colby who was more forthcoming on the sins of the CIA. The CIA had produced an internal report on their own illegal activities, described as “The Family Jewels”. This report was discovered and leaked to the press as a result of the Church committee.

In addition to reporting on the sins of the CIA, the Church committee revealed the FBI's attempt to destroy Martin Luther King, including discovery of the effort to encourage King to commit suicide. Additionally, it reported on the FBI domestic spying on antiwar activists, supposed communists, and civil rights activists. It pushed for investigation of Fred Hampton's assassination at the hands of the FBI.

Risen's lack of research is subject to severe criticism in his treatment of the question of Presidential authorization of the attempts to assassination Fidel Castro. He first indicates that the committee struggled with this question, and writes that both Eisenhower and Kennedy were “masters of plausible deniability”. (page 214).

Then, he carelessly writes “Looking back, there is little doubt that both Eisenhower and Kennedy secretly made it clear that they wanted the agency to kill Castro”. The following paragraph reads “Kennedy came to share Eisenhower's belief that the CIA existed to serve as a Presidential weapon- particularly when it came to Cuba.” To back this up, he quotes a 1967 CIA inspector general report which states “We cannot overemphasize the extent to which responsible agency officers felt themselves subject to the Kennedy Administration's severe pressures to do something about Castro and his regime”

(page 215). To quote the CIA's cover story as proof of anything is lazy scholarship,and belies an understanding of the term “limited hangout”.

To set the record straight, Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs fiasco that he wanted to “Splinter the CIA into a Thousand Pieces and Scatter It to the Winds”. After the Bay of Pigs, rather than use the CIA for plausible deniability, he took full responsibly. He terminated Alan Dulles, Richard Bissell and others. Regarding attempts to assassinate Castro, Allen Dulles and the CIA did continue those efforts during and after John Kennedy fired Allen Dulles, however there is no firm evidence that John F. Kennedy was aware. Using the plausible deniability argument, some believe Robert Kennedy did know and approve, but even this is speculation. (ninth paragraph in this article from American Experience on Operation Mongoose). Allen Dulles did remain active after termination and spent November 22, 1963 at “the farm”, a secret CIA facility.

In Chapter 18, the author deals with the CIA efforts to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, who was killed in the days prior to Kennedy's inauguration. Kennedy was not told for 26 days after his assassination, which occurred prior to his inauguration. Although he does not implicate Kennedy in this decision, he fails to separate Kennedy's policy with Eisenhower's decision to assassinate Lumumba. The he writes that Frank Church “no longer saw the Congo crisis and Patrice Lumumba through a Kennedy-style Cold War lens.”, thus conflating Eisenhower's policy with Kennedy's. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A full treatment of the policy of the Kennedy administration towards Castro can be found here. Suffice to day that Kennedy was attempting to achieve a rapprochement with Castro on the day he was killed. Kennedy representative Jean Daniel was with Castro when both learned of the assassination.

Despite the shortcoming of failing to understand that the assassination of Kennedy changed American foreign policy from one of peace to one of Empire based on military might, Risen's book on Frank Church is an important contribution to understanding the only serious effort in American history to reign in the National Security State. One might argue that another Church committee is long overdue, nonetheless this book in an important contribution to understanding the forces that the elected American government must deal with in attempting to control the National Security State.