Because Rep. Jim Jordan is widely known as a statesman of world-historical stature, Republicans have been comparing the new investigative committee he will chair to the Church Committee of the 1970s. Just as that storied panel exposed rampant intelligence abuses, the Ohio Republican vows his committee will boldly expose contemporary “weaponizing of the federal government” that’s similarly corrupt, lawless and pervasive.
But the analogy doesn’t ring true to a onetime aide to Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, which was colloquially named for its chair.
“That is really an absurd comparison,” Loch Johnson, who wrote a book about his experiences as Church’s top staffer on that committee, said in a phone interview. “It’s really a sad spectacle.”
Yet the GOP attempt to reboot the Church Committee tells us a good deal about our current political moment, about the GOP-controlled House’s obvious intention to abuse its oversight function to protect former president Donald Trump and about what’s happened to today’s Republican Party.
Jordan’s committee will examine the executive branch’s “collection of information” on U.S. citizens, “including criminal investigations.” It will have access to highly sensitive information available only to the House Intelligence Committee. Republicans say Jordan’s panel will reveal how “the radical left” weaponized law enforcement against ordinary Americans.
The Church Committee of the mid-1970s actually did uncover extraordinary abuses by intelligence services directed at U.S. citizens — mostly of the left-wing variety. The committee was established after revelations that the CIA had been spying on antiwar activists for more than a decade, and its investigation probed FBI covert actions directed at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., anti-Vietnam War protesters and many others (though some on the far right were also targeted).
It is widely understood that Republicans on today’s committee hope to paint a similarly lurid tale, this time depicting conservatives as mass victims of jack-booted oppression. But they are unlikely to find anything similar to what left-wing activists actually did experience in the 20th century.
“Driven by ideology and revenge,” is how Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, describes the new GOP committee. He predicts an endless “search for the mythical deep state,” the imagined instrument supposedly used by the left to persecute conservatives inside the MAGA information bubble.
Jordan’s committee will also likely seek to harass and undermine criminal investigations of Trump and even prosecutions of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. We know this because GOP rage rises to its highest pitch in response to law enforcement activity directed at Trump. The GOP version of the Church Committee has no discernible aim of meaningful reform, but rather seeks to smear in advance what by all indications are legitimate law enforcement investigations into Trump.
“This is a protection operation,” Johnson told me, one designed to “protect the insurrectionists.” Because Jordan and other House Republicans are implicated in the events of Jan. 6, Johnson added, this is really “a self-protection operation.”
To be fair, Republicans have gotten some things right. The Justice Department’s inspector general found serious procedural failures in FBI wiretapping to investigate Russian electoral interference. But the IG deemed the investigation legitimately authorized, destroying a ubiquitous GOP talking point.
Which highlights another deep absurdity in the Jordan-Church comparisons.
Things such as that IG investigation and congressional oversight of our intelligence agencies constitute genuine achievements of the Church Committee and other post-Watergate reformers. During the Cold War and the era’s domestic turmoil, the intelligence services did become highly insular and engage in extraordinary abuses of power. That led to the creation of congressional intelligence committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which attempts to restrain intelligence gathering within lawful bounds.
In other words, the Church Committee led to serious, bipartisan reforms undertaken for the public good and in defense of the rule of law. The reforms were far from perfect, and serious abuses still do take place.
But intelligence oversight is much better than it was, and the Church Committee was key to that. Yet Republicans now want to turn their committee into a hyperpartisan weapon to spin the current “deep state” as more lawless than its previous iteration. Perversely, their goal is to place Trump beyond accountability and the law — and to portray people who sought to violently destroy democracy’s underpinnings as persecuted victims.
The best historical touchstone for today’s GOP effort is not the Church Committee, Johnson points out. It’s Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. “It’s a wrecking operation, more than anything constructive,” Johnson said of the Republicans’ committee.
The ultimate absurdity here is that Republicans are blocking exactly the sort of reform-and-accountability moment the Church Committee represented — which we need right now in the wake of similarly convulsive scandals — while hijacking its good name to that nefarious end.
“For them to appropriate the name of the Church Committee for the mischief that they’re up to," Johnson told me, "is wrenching for those of us who were involved.”