The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Jordan takes his friends on a fishing expedition

Jim Jordan, left, talks with Kevin McCarthy as the House meets for a second day on Jan. 4 to try to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
9 min

The 1975-76 Senate select committee chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church stands out as exceptional in U.S. history for two reasons.

The first was its effect. The committee uncovered or detailed a range of nefarious or illegal activity by government law enforcement and intelligence agencies: The wiretapping of prominent individuals, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The secret opening and reading of Americans’ mail. Use of the bureaucracy to harass both prominent and average Americans. The committee’s work led to new systems of accountability and new boundaries for government agencies.

Not all of this information was new. The committee was created in response to a spate of news stories picking out individual examples of those sorts of harassment: Seymour Hersh’s reporting for the New York Times detailing CIA surveillance of Americans, the revelations that followed the Watergate scandal.

The second reason that the committee stands out, particularly in this moment, was that it was a good-faith, bipartisan effort by the legislative branch to hold the executive branch to account. It’s easy to consider the moment through rose-colored glasses and, of course, any action undertaken by politicians has an inherent element of politics. But the history of the committee depicts a sincere process led by collegial actors.

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About a decade ago, there were calls for a new Church Committee, predicated on similar targets. Revelations about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency reported by The Washington Post and others prompted a new effort to review the actions of and constraints on the intelligence community. Even participants in the original committee joined calls for a new, comprehensive examination of the government’s surveillance systems. No such select committee was created.

Since Republicans retook the House in last year’s midterm elections, there have been increasing calls for a select committee mirroring the one led by Church. This month, as Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was struggling to get the votes needed to be elected speaker of the House, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — the loudest voice from the right’s more-remote regions — suggested that McCarthy’s critics use their leverage for just such a purpose.

They could insist on the creation of a committee, he said, “designed to discover what the FBI and the intel agencies have been doing to control domestic politics in this country. They’ve been doing a lot. … The rot has spread and democracy has withered.”

“The FBI is now a bigger force in American elections than any single group of voters,” he added with characteristic hyperbole.

Carlson even had a nominee to serve in Church’s role: Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). And, sure enough, Massie himself appeared on Carlson’s show a few days later to make an announcement: A new Church Committee would be formed. Echoing Carlson’s rhetoric about the need, Massie also tried to set expectations.

“A lot of this is going to play out down in the SCIF,” he said, referring to secure, compartmentalized information facilities used to prevent hostile eavesdropping. “You’re going to have to trust the people on this committee. … A lot of it will be behind closed doors. It’ll be classified information. But if we find anything illegal or unconstitutional, we will bring it forward.”

Then, this week, the committee was created in a party-line vote.

Let’s now apply to the new effort the two metrics that made the Church Committee successful, starting with the process by which it was created and run. After all, Massie warns that we’ll need to trust those participating since much of their research will be conducted behind closed doors.

In 1975, the Church Committee was approved by a bipartisan 82 to 4 vote. The resolution creating it described how its members would be determined:

“The select committee created by this resolution shall consist of eleven Members of the Senate, six to be appointed by the President of the Senate from the majority Members of the Senate upon the recommendation of the majority leader of the Senate, and five minority Members of the Senate to be appointed by the President of the Senate upon the recommendation of the minority leader.”

Eleven members, six chosen by the majority (the Democrats) and five by the minority.

Now contrast that with the House iteration.

“The select subcommittee shall be composed of the chair and ranking minority member of the Committee on the Judiciary, together with not more than 13 other Members, Delegates, or the Resident Commissioner appointed by the Speaker, of whom not more than 5 shall be appointed in consultation with the minority leader.”

Thirteen members chosen by the speaker — though the Democratic minority could weigh in on five of them.

It was not Massie who got the nod to chair the committee, incidentally. Instead it was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, of which the select committee will be a subsidiary.

His appointment alone allows us an interesting point of contrast. In 1975, the most ideologically extreme member of the committee was Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a politician whose 1964 presidential nomination yielded a number of criticisms and advertisements centered on his fringe politics. According to VoteView, his DW-NOMINATE score, a measure of ideology, was 0.641 on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative). Church’s was -0.384. Jordan’s is 0.717.

As the GOP has tried to frame its new committee as the descendant of Church’s work, people who worked on the 1975 effort have spoken out in opposition.

One wrote an essay for the Hill rejecting the comparison.

“Who in their right mind would believe that Jim Jordan’s ‘new Church Committee’ is going to — in any way — resemble what took place so many years ago?” wrote Peter Fenn, who was a top aide to Church. “Will this be at all bipartisan? Hard to imagine.”

A similar essay appeared at the conservative site the Bulwark.

“Two of us ([Loch] Johnson and [Frederick] Baron) served in key staff positions on the Church committee,” they wrote. “The comparison is preposterous. The new House subcommittee is not remotely up to the Church committee standard — in origin, composition, or purpose.”

Purpose is, of course, key. The original Church Committee was born of detailed reporting showing ways in which federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies had violated Americans’ rights. The Jordan-led committee is predicated instead on vague, largely unsubstantiated rumors that have been supercharged by right-wing media.

The original Church Committee, for example, included a mandate to examine the “origin and disposition of the so-called Huston Plan to apply United States intelligence agency capabilities against individuals or organizations within the United States.” The new committee has, among its mandates, to probe “the laws, programs, and activities of the executive branch as they relate to the collection of information on citizens of the United States and the sources and methods used for the collection of information on citizens of the United States.”

In other words, nearly everything.

In interviews, Jordan and other Republicans have insisted that there’s a need for the new committee because, for example, there have been alleged FBI whistleblowers who’ve come forward to express concern about politicization in the bureau. Fair enough. But then we have comments like these from Jordan when he was arguing for the creation of the committee on the House floor. He was objecting to a Democrat calling the idea a political ploy.

“A ploy?” Jordan said. “It’s not a ploy when the Department of Justice treats parents as terrorists, moms and dads who are simply showing up at a school board meeting to advocate for their son or daughter.”

“A ploy?” he continued. “It’s not a ploy when the FBI pays Twitter $3 million, not one, not two, but $3 million to censor American citizens.”

Each of those things is misleading or incorrect. The Justice Department did not “treat parents as terrorists” for showing up at school board meetings; it insisted that it would monitor terroristic threats against educators. The FBI didn’t pay Twitter to censor Americans; it reimbursed Twitter for costs incurred by replying to federal subpoenas, in accordance with federal law.

Jordan, who will lead a panel with jurisdiction over the courts and law enforcement, spent much of last year ignoring a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The committee referred him to the House Ethics Committee for failing to honor a subpoena.

What the new committee is, most clearly, is a response to a years-long effort by the GOP, following cues from Donald Trump, to diminish the credibility of federal law enforcement. Trump was mad that his 2016 presidential campaign had been part of the investigation into Russian interference in that election and began railing against intelligence officials and the FBI even before he took office.

That pattern continued throughout his presidency, with conservative and right-wing media and Republican elected officials working overtime to appeal to his supporters by ginning up examples of purported bias by government investigators. When the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last summer in search of documents that Trump claimed he didn’t possess, the effort went into overdrive.

So now the GOP has what it presents as a new Church Committee, aimed at — at last — finding evidence that it was right all along.

Consider why the party is so insistent on invoking the name of the 1975 effort. First, it hopes to trade off the Church Committee’s recognized legitimacy, to assume an air of legitimacy by proxy.

Second, and more important, the new panel itself is an effort to win a communications fight against the intelligence community. If this is a new Church Committee, then surely there must be significant revelations to come akin to what was revealed in that committee’s final reports, right? If we need a new Church Committee, then there must be egregious actions to be uncovered, just as there were then. Ergo, the GOP had a point all along.

None of this is to say that the committee won’t find something politically useful. That’s the nature of fishing expeditions: You’re just trying to catch something, regardless of what it happens to be.

And with access to the full range of governmental decision-making and information — and perhaps shielded from scrutiny of any broader context by the secrecy Massie pledged — there may well be a range of revelations that aid the party politically. Or, at least, with its base. That’s been the story since 2015: find isolated things from which a conspiratorial latticework can be constructed.

The Church Committee it is not.