F.A.O. ‘Fritz’ Schwarz: A Lifelong Public Servant and Watchdog on Intelligence Agencies’ Power

As chief counsel to the Church Committee and chair of the Fund for the City of New York, Schwarz has always gone above and beyond to serve the public.

| 02 Mar 2023 | 01:16

Frederick August Otto Schwarz, Jr.--known as Fritz--is an outstanding legal advocate and defender of democracy. While Schwarz’ private practice has been as a litigator at the firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, he has spent a large portion of his life in public service. Since 2002 he has been chief counsel at the Brennan Center, where he has tried three cases and testified many times before Congress.

Among his myriad achievements, Schwarz is perhaps best known for his work as chief counsel to the Church Committee, also known as the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.

The Committee investigated US intelligence agencies the NSA, FBI and CIA, and discovered monumental evidence of those agencies’ illegal surveillance and abuses of power in the wake of Watergate. Among other things, the Committee was instrumental in uncovering the FBI’s futile attempts to try to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide.

The Committee’s findings led to the establishment of the FISA courts and of intelligence committees in Congress, both designed to act as a check on the intelligence agencies’ power.

With the advancement of surveillance technologies, of course, the capabilities of the intelligence agencies to infringe on our civil liberties have skyrocketed. Revelations in the past decade by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden have made it all too apparent that the NSA has indeed used these capabilities to conduct mass surveillance of US citizens. Schwarz has stated that he feels a new Church Committee is now needed to monitor the actions of the intelligence agencies.

“The technologies are different, but the concepts of the problem are not different,” Schwarz says, adding that he feels the same underlying skills and principles that guided the original Church Committee would be necessary today in a modern iteration.

He expressed the same opinion in an editorial for The Nation in 2014, stating, “It is time for a new committee to examine our secret government closely again, particularly for its actions in the post-9/11 period.” Schwarz was awarded the Ridenhour Courage Prize in 2014 for his work on the Church Committee.

Schwarz’ dedication to fighting overreach of government power extended beyond his work with the Church Committee. As chairman of the Fund for the City of New York, he took a stance against police violence and police shootings of civilians.

“I wrote several speeches [on the subject] for the Police Commissioner [Howard Leary],” says Schwarz. “It has not gotten less relevant! It’s still a highly important issue.”

Born and raised in NYC, Schwarz is also the great-grandson of FAO Schwarz, namesake of the cherished toy emporium that once loomed over Times Square. While his career took him from Cambridge to northern Nigeria to Washington, D.C., Schwarz has remained a New Yorker and a loyal Upper East Sider at heart. Today, he and his wife Ricky still live in the neighborhood where he grew up.

“A block away from here, on 93rd Street, that was my family’s house,” Schwarz says. He points fondly at his childhood home, still visible from his window.