Sen. Frank Church during a session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA in 1975.
Photo: Bettmann Archive
In one of their very first steps since taking over the House of Representatives, House Republicans have created a special new panel to launch wide-ranging investigations into what they allege are the ways in which the federal government has abused the rights of conservatives.
But Republicans and right-wing pundits have already given up on its clumsy formal title — “the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government” — and are now simply calling it the new “Church Committee.” By doing so, they are explicitly comparing it to the historic Church Committee of the mid-1970s, which conducted landmark investigations of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community, none of which had previously been subject to real oversight.
The new “weaponization” subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee will be chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, a right-wing ally of former President Donald Trump, and has a much different objective than the original Church Committee: The panel is widely expected to become a pro-Trump star chamber, investigating the officials and organizations that have previously investigated Trump, including the FBI and the Justice Department.
The Jordan subcommittee also seems likely to investigate the House January 6 committee, which operated when the Democrats controlled the chamber — and referred Jordan to the House Ethics Committee for his involvement in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Jordan, who stuck by Rep. Kevin McCarthy during McCarthy’s marathon bid to become House speaker last week, is now being rewarded with the mandate and resources to conduct investigations into almost any corner of the government he chooses; those probes have the potential to make the Biden administration look bad or Trump look good. McCarthy has even authorized the subcommittee to examine ongoing criminal investigations, which the Justice Department will certainly oppose.
By calling their panel the new Church Committee, Jordan and the Republicans are trying to assume the mantle of one of the most iconic investigative committees in congressional history. (I’ve spent the last several years researching and writing a book about Sen. Frank Church and his eponymous panel, which will be published in May.)
“When you reach back in history and bring a phrase from the past to the present, you get to carry a meaning into contemporary time,” observed Stephanie Martin, the Frank and Bethine Church Endowed Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University in Idaho, the native state of Sen. Church, the Democrat who chaired the original Church Committee. “By calling it the Church Committee,” she added, Republicans are appropriating the image “of effective change and effective oversight.”
But the differences between the Church Committee and Jordan’s new subcommittee are stark, observes Loch Johnson, who served as an aide to Church on the committee and later wrote a firsthand account of the committee’s work. “The Church Committee was strongly oriented toward following the documentary evidence that we were able to uncover,” says Johnson. “The inquiry was driven not by ideology, revenge, or anything else but the facts.” Today’s Republicans, he added, seem “motivated by ideology and a sense of grievance, starting with the ‘stolen election’ of 2020.”
Johnson and others argue that what the Republicans are creating is unlikely to be anything like the Church Committee, especially if, as seems almost certain, it descends into conspiracy theories about a mythical “deep state” that is out to get Trump and conservatives.
The existence of an anti-Trump “deep state” has become one of the most persistent conspiracy theories on the right and feeds into the anger and resentment against the government held by pro-Trump forces, including Jordan. Like all powerful and lasting conspiracy theories, it relies on some basic facts — but then turns reality on its head to reach a fantastical conclusion.
It is true that America is burdened with a sprawling and ever-growing military-industrial complex built on a network of relationships linking the Pentagon; the CIA; Homeland Security; defense, intelligence, and counterterrorism contractors; and many others in a powerful and partially hidden web that, over the past few decades, has pushed the nation into a period of nearly endless war. The traditional post-World War II military-industrial complex grew steadily for decades despite President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about its rising power in his 1961 farewell address: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Its power expanded exponentially after the September 11 attacks as counterterrorism and homeland security became big businesses, making it far more difficult for the United States to ever reduce its paranoia over the threat of terrorism.
But today’s combined military, intelligence, and counterterrorism complex is a capitalistic, pro-military center of gravity in American society. It is not anti-Trump or anti-conservative, and it is definitely not a secret political organization bent on imposing “woke” views on Americans.
In fact, it was the work of the Church Committee that helped ensure that the “deep state” is nothing more than a right-wing conspiracy theory today. In the first three decades after World War II, the U.S. intelligence community faced no real oversight or outside scrutiny, and as a result, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA grew beyond presidents’ ability to control and became increasingly lawless. The reforms created as a result of the Church Committee helped to bring the intelligence community fully under the rule of law for the first time. By disclosing a series of shocking abuses of power, Frank Church and his committee created rules of the road for the intelligence community that largely remain in place today.
The Church Committee’s work represented a watershed moment in American history — which is why Republican are now so eager to co-opt its name. But there is no evidence that Jordan plans to follow the earlier panel’s serious and comprehensive approach. In fact, the involvement of Jordan and other House Republicans in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election already constitutes an obvious conflict of interest. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat who is now House minority leader, tweeted that “extreme MAGA Republicans have established a Select Committee on Insurrection Protection.”
Rather than being a true heir to the Church Committee, Jordan’s subcommittee seems destined to follow the pattern of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Jordan and today’s Republicans are employing the same kind of resentment and grievances against “elites” that fueled Joseph McCarthy, and Jordan also seems destined to use some of McCarthy’s tactics, targeting individual officials to claim they are “woke” or part of the “deep state” — updated versions of McCarthy’s phraseology about “Communist subversion.” It’s no coincidence that Roy Cohn, who worked as chief counsel to McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings, later became a key mentor to Trump in the work of launching vicious political attacks.
Previously an obscure back-bench Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy surged to fame in 1950, when he falsely claimed in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, to have a list of Communists in the State Department, triggering a period of intense paranoia and witch hunting that is now known as the McCarthy era. After he became a committee chair in 1953, McCarthy switched his focus to the Army, with Cohn by his side.
By going after the State Department and then the Army, McCarthy took on two of the most important and tradition-bound institutions in the United States at the time. The State Department had not fought back successfully against McCarthy, but the Army did. After McCarthy charged Army leaders with ignoring evidence of Communist subversion at a military facility in New Jersey, the Army went on the attack, accusing McCarthy of seeking special treatment for David Schine, a McCarthy consultant and friend of Cohn’s. The charges and counter-charges ultimately led to a long-running series of nationally televised hearings that garnered huge audiences, pitting McCarthy and Cohn against Joseph Welch, an urbane outside lawyer brought in to represent the Army.
In a televised hearing on June 9, 1954, McCarthy and Welch engaged in a historic showdown, with Cohn looking on. Bitter at Welch, McCarthy publicly raised questions about the loyalty of Fred Fisher, a lawyer at Welch’s law firm. Welch’s devastating response — “Have you no sense of decency?” — has gone down in history as the moment McCarthy’s power was broken.
In December 1954, the Senate finally voted to censure McCarthy; by 1957, he was dead.
Does the shame that finally brought down McCarthy still have the power to curb Republican excesses? Johnson, Frank Church’s former aide, isn’t so sure.
“We’re headed for something that combines a witch hunt with a circus,” Johnson said, noting that the so-called new Church Committee “is likely to make the 1950s McCarthy hearings appear, in retrospect, rather benign.”