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I worked for the Church Committee — what Jim Jordan is leading bears no resemblance

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)
Greg Nash
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) speaks to a reporter as he arrives for a closed-door House Republican conference meeting on Tuesday, January 10, 2023.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and partisan firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pushed through a party-line vote to create a House committee designed to investigate the Biden administration and defend Donald Trump.

They call it a “new Church Committee,” after one of the most consequential investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies, chaired by former Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). That committee was established 48 years ago this month after revelations of spying on Americans and assassination plots against foreign leaders.

As a young 27-year-old, I served on the staff of that committee, one of the greatest privileges of my life. Later, as an aide to Church, I worked on a number of reforms of the intelligence agencies.

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).

The Church Committee was created in January 1975 by a vote of 82-4 and was composed of some of the most liberal and conservative Senators — who pledged to work together to find solutions to the abuses conducted over decades by Democratic and Republican administrations. There was liberal Frank Church as Chairman and conservative John Tower (R-Texas) as Vice Chairman, Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.), among others.

In contrast, the new committee, to be headed by Jim Jordan, was approved by a strict party-line vote of 221-211, with no Democrats in support. According to the resolution creating the committee, it will have 13 Republicans and five Democrats; the Church Committee was six Democrats and five Republicans. Can anyone see the slightest indication of a bipartisan investigation coming from the Jordan Committee?

The Church Committee, in 15 months, had 126 full committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewed 800 witnesses in both public and closed sessions, and produced six volumes of public reports totaling 2,702 pages. They had seven volumes of hearings and countless transcripts and reports that remained classified.

There was not one leak attributed to the Church Committee, despite the political atmosphere under which it was working.

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.

Most important, the work of the Church Committee resulted in 96 recommendations, many of which were adopted, such as the critical passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requiring warrants on Americans, the creation of permanent Senate and House Intelligence Committees, and internal reforms of agencies like the FBI, NSA, and CIA.

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?

Will this be at all bipartisan? Hard to imagine.

Will this be a thorough and serious examination of issues covering both Democratic and Republican administrations? Not a chance.

Will this become a trial of the “weaponization of government” under Joe Biden, as Jordan and McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus promise? You bet. 

As Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass) point out, this committee will itself be a partisan “weapon” and resemble the demagogue Joe McCarthy more than Kevin McCarthy. It will more likely resemble the old House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), not the Church Committee. In a very real sense, this will be a weapon targeting democracy itself, in a crass and partisan manner, not an effort to save our democracy.

It is sad, really, because one could argue that there is a need for a new Church Committee that looks at legislation of 50 years ago, assumptions about technology and privacy and national security as they have changed so radically over that half century, and the role of our intelligence agencies in the modern age. There are serious issues to explore with a possible joint House and Senate committee, or outside commission, where experts explore some of the complicated issues before our country and seek reasonable solutions. Many of us have contemplated this for some time.

Unfortunately, what we are faced with over the coming months is not that kind of serious examination, designed to focus on, and solve, real issues.

Rather, it 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.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. He serves on the board of the Frank Church Institute. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

Tags American democracy Bipartisanship Church Committee Congressional investigation Congressional oversight Donald Trump Frank Church George Santos House Un-American Activities Committee HUAC intelligence community Jerrold Nadler Jim Jordan Jim Jordan Jim McGovern Kevin McCarthy partisan politics trumpism

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