Congress first probed into the activities of federal intelligence agencies like the CIA and the FBI in 1975. Before that, some agencies engaged unchecked in illegal activities, including a 20-year CIA mail surveillance program and FBI disruption and harassment of American political protest groups. Other covert operations involved plots to assassinate foreign leaders and action in Chile to overthrow former Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens.
Spurred by press reports of abuses, the Senate established a committee to study intelligence activities, headed by the late Frank Church (D) of Idaho.
As a result of the committee's recommendations to strengthen executive and congressional oversight of intelligence agencies, each house of Congress established a permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to monitor the activities of those agencies.
The Church committee's findings also spurred Congress to toughen legislation requiring a president to tell Congress about covert operations of intelligence agencies. The 1980 law:
Reduced the number of congressional committees entitled to notification of covert action from eight to two - the new House and Senate committees - to facilitate secrecy.
Required the executive branch to keep those two committees ``fully and currently informed'' of all US intelligence activities.
Required a president to report ``in a timely fashion'' to the committees any illegal intelligence activities and corrective action that has been taken.
The law was meant to complement a 1974 requirement that a president give personal approval to each covert activity by signing a ``finding'' explaining its justification and general goals.
According to a Senate report, the law was ``intended to mean that the committees shall be informed at the time of the presidential finding that authorizes'' each covert operation.