On Jan. 27, 1975, the U.S. Senate passed S. Res. 21, a resolution creating the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, in a 82-4 vote. With that, the legendary Church Committee was launched.
Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, had established a reputation as a principled, courageous, and skilled statesman in his three terms before then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield tapped him to lead the select committee. Church was one of the first lawmakers to question the war in Vietnam, making a floor speech early in February 1965 and becoming a leading force among the anti-war lawmakers. His World War II experience serving as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in China, Burma (now Myanmar), and India informed his position on that war and his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he eventually led. He coauthored the Cooper-Church Amendment in 1970, which restricted President Richard Nixon’s authority to wage war in Cambodia without the consent of Congress after it passed in 1971.
Prior to the formation of Church Committee, Church had co-chaired a special committee to critically examine the executive branch’s consolidation of power in the Cold War era. He had earned a spot on the Foreign Relations committee, a plum assignment, early in his career as a result of his assistance as a freshman to Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. When Church was tapped to lead this investigation, it was in recognition of his integrity, his expertise, and his dogged determination to do what was right by the rule of law for the people of this nation.
All of this is given as an abbreviated historical context behind knowing why the House maniacs comparing Rep. Jim Jordan’s new new select committee intended to shut down investigations into Trump and insurrectionists to the Church Committee is so deeply offensive and off-base.
Dr. Stephanie Martin, holder of the Frank and Bethine Church Chair on Public Affairs at Boise State University, explained in a Boise State Public Radio interview that while the institute is not making a formal statement on this attempt to co-opt the hard work of Church and his fellow committee members all those decades ago, “it is difficult for every single person affiliated with the institute, and I daresay for very many Idahoans, to not take this personally. We definitely are losing sleep over what is happening because history matters to us, and truth matters to us very much.”
As a Frank Church Institute (FCI) board member, I am among those. I was just a kid during those hearings, but I grew up in a family that was both political and had personal connections with the senator. (He was and always has been “The Senator” to those who knew him.) Others, some prominent, some less so, who had personal and professional connections with him have also felt the gut punch of having his legacy bandied about by the likes of McCarthy and Jordan. It’s personal and it’s visceral.
That includes former Sen. Gary Hart, for one. He is the last surviving member of the Church Committee, and he had a great deal to say about this attempt to co-opt its legacy.
The rules of the Senate and the House establish what standing committees and what special committees each house may create. The House is clearly at liberty within those rules to create a committee to protect what it perceives to be an important element of its base. And if its purposes are ultimately to protect authoritarian interests, it is presumably free to do so and accept criticisms from the press and the public. It is outrageous to call it a new Church committee. Trying to disguise a highly partisan effort to legitimize undemocratic activities by cloaking it in the mantle of a successful bipartisan committee from decades ago is a mockery.
Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist and fellow FCI board member, was a staffer on the Church Committee, calling it “one of the greatest privileges of my life.”
We investigated the secret actions of the FBI to spy on, and undermine, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other civil rights leaders. We examined “watch lists” of law-abiding Americans whose communications were intercepted and put under surveillance, because they were protesting the War in Vietnam or engaged in the struggle for human rights. We focused on U.S. foreign intelligence agencies that engaged in plotting coups, undermining elections abroad and plotting assassinations of leaders. Many of these activities occurred over decades, across administrations, as intelligence agencies illegally expanded and overstepped their missions.
“To compare what is about to take place under Jordan with the careful, bipartisan, results-focused Church Committee is like comparing newly elected Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) with Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas),” Fenn wrote in The Hill. This Jordan committee, he writes is “vitriolic, attack-dog politics at its worst. It is hard to imagine for those of us who worked so hard and with such passion those many years ago to make America better.”
Loch Johnson, Church’s top staffer on the committee, told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent that it is “really an absurd comparison. … It’s really a sad spectacle.” Instead of being driven by a commitment to sunlight and good government, this House GOP effort will be “[d]riven by ideology and revenge,” a “search for the mythical deep state.” Worse, he believes, this is being set up to be “a protection operation … to protect the insurrectionsts.”
The Church Committee, Johnson wrote with fellow former staffer Frederick Baron and Dennis Aftergut in The Bulwark, “bore serious moral authority, which arose from its truly bipartisan mission: tough-minded rethinking of intelligence agency activities under administrations of both parties stretching back almost twenty years.”
Indispensable to its credibility was the energetic participation of steely moderate Republican senators like Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), Charles Mathias (R-Md.), and Richard Schweiker (R-Penn.). These were statesmen—intellectually honest and adept. In particular, Baker performed an indispensable, fair-minded role for Church committee Republicans, as he had done on the Senate Watergate Committee.
Jim Jordan is no statesman. He is no Frank Church. He is no Howard Baker. James Risen, who has spent the last several years researching and writing a new book about Church and his efforts, expects Jordan to provide nothing more than “a pro-Trump star chamber, investigating the officials and organizations that have previously investigated Trump, including the FBI and the Justice Department.”
“The Church Committee’s work represented a watershed moment in American history—which is why Republicans are now so eager to co-opt its name,” Risen writes. “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.”
A conflict of interest puts it mildly. What Jordan’s committee of insurrectionists has in mind is nothing less than furthering Donald Trump’s coup attempt, potentially with the aim of completing it in 2024, with the blessing of Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the whole of the House GOP. They perverting the Church Committee’s efforts to rein in abuses of the nation’s surveillance state against the American people. They are pretending that the investigation and prosecution of the coup plotter and the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol is the equivalent of J. Edgar Hoover spying on Martin Luther King Jr.
This new attack on law enforcement is an effort to not just exonerate Trump, but to allow his return. To create a tame government force that would do his authoritarian bidding. His previous term was a dry run. The attacks on Black Lives Matters protesters in D.C. and his occupation of the city of Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2020 were harbingers. There’s no doubt that Trump envisions himself in the league of authoritarian leaders, and there’s no doubt the GOP would follow him.
Which is precisely the future Church was attempting to avert with his committee, as he explained on Aug. 17, 1975, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. Here, now, are the senator’s own words.
We have a very extensive capability of intercepting messages wherever they may be in the airwaves. Now that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know. At the same time, that capability could be turned around at any time on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.
There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back. Because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, not matter how privately it was done is with the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.
Now why is this investigation important? I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America. And we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That’s the abyss from which there is no return.
Those two minutes and 53 seconds are all you need to have a basis for comparison with Jordan or any other Republican. There simply is none.
Election season is already here, and it's already off to an amazing start with Democrats' huge flip of a critical seat in the Virginia state Senate, which kicks off this episode of The Downballot. Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard dissect what Aaron Rouse's victory means for November (abortion is still issue #1!) when every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot. They also discuss big goings-on in two U.S. Senate races: California, where Rep. Katie Porter just became the first Democrat to kick off a bid despite Sen. Dianne Feinstein's lack of a decision about her own future, and Michigan, which just saw veteran Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow announce her retirement.