It might have taken House Republicans 15 rounds of voting to elect a Speaker, but they’ve wasted little time since then getting started on one of their central campaign promises—to use the levers of Congress to investigate the Biden administration.
Last week, they announced the formation of a select committee that, they say, will reveal that much of the federal government has become politically compromised at the behest of President Joe Biden and the Democrats to unfairly target conservatives. Democrats, as well as some Republicans and former federal prosecutors, have castigated the effort as more of a politically-motivated PR stunt than a serious inquiry.
Be that as it may, the GOP-led investigations aren’t going away, and only two weeks into the new Congress, House Republicans are already trying to rebrand the committee. Shifting away from its clunky official name—the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government—GOP House leaders have recently started calling it “the new Church Committee.”
It’s a reference to one of the most consequential oversight investigations ever conducted by Congress. Here’s what to know about it and why some critics are skeptical the new House panel will be able to emulate it.
What was the Church Committee?
From January 1975 to April 1976, Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, led a body that probed the U.S. intelligence community. The effort stemmed from a bombshell Seymour Hersch report in the New York Times that alleged the Central Intelligence Agency had conducted a massive surveillance program of anti-Vietnam war activists and former President Richard Nixon’s political adversaries.
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The 16-month investigation uncovered stunning levels of corruption within America’s federal law enforcement agencies, including covert FBI operations aimed at discrediting civil rights and anti-war groups that some federal officials considered “subversive,” and evidence of the CIA recruiting journalists to spread propaganda. The committee also revealed that the National Security Agency surveilled Nixon dissidents and prominent racial justice leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. And it divulged that the CIA had attempted assassinations of foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro of Cuba, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo.
That panel, which also had a clunky official name—the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities—became known as “the Church Committee.”
Was the Church Committee effective?
Jim Townsend, director of the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at Wayne State University of Law School, tells TIME that the Church Committee set “the gold standard for conducting a Congressional investigation and ascertaining the facts.”
The findings led to significant governmental reforms that helped renew trust in federal law enforcement agencies in the wake of the Watergate scandal. After the Church Committee released its 2,700-page final report, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning political assassinations; the House and Senate each established their own permanent Select Committees on intelligence to provide oversight of the intelligence community; and Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which required intelligence agencies to seek approval from a special court before beginning surveillance of American citizens.
How does the House GOP’s new panel compare to the Church Committee?
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Republican who will chair the “weaponization” committee, has said the panel will expose widespread government overreach and abuse, much like the Church Committee did. Recent examples that he says warrant the panel’s creation include the FBI last summer executing a search warrant against former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home after he refused to return classified documents; the Department of Homeland Security creating a disinformation information board to coordinate with social media platforms to prevent the spread of misinformation, but which Jordan says is censoring conservative speech; and how the Department of Justice, he alleges, “treats parents as terrorists, moms and dads who are simply showing up at a school board meeting to advocate for their son or daughter.”
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, says what’s known about the committee so far does not suggest an impartial exercise in oversight, beginning with its name. “If you’ve already called it ‘weaponization,’ you’ve reached a conclusion before you have undertaken any investigation,” McQuade tells TIME. “It’s confirmation bias at its worst—when you begin with an idea of where the investigation is going to lead.”
She and others see little in common with the well-regarded Church Committee’s efforts from nearly 50 years ago.
“I am skeptical of the committee, because what it appears to be doing is trying to further a narrative rather than conduct a true, independent look at practices that are of concern,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, tells TIME.
McQuade, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, predicts that the panel will operate in bad faith to undermine some of the work underway by Attorney General Merrick Garland, particularly on the Trump investigations.
“It is almost a given that if and when Merrick Garland or other members of the Justice Department are asked questions about pending investigations, they are going to say they cannot comment on that because it’s a pending investigation,” she says. “And then I fear that it will be used as an effort to impeach Merrick Garland or to suggest that somehow, a-ha, they must be hiding something that they don’t want to reveal.”
Equally disconcerting, she adds, is that Jordan himself has been implicated in the Jan. 6 attack, as he was in regular communication with Trump about his efforts to block the Congressional certification of the Electoral College. “I think that there is a conflict of interest for Jordan and the other members of Congress who have criminal exposure related to the Jan. 6 investigation,” says McQuade. “And so to the extent they are in there trying to sabotage it, they’re acting in their own personal interest as opposed to the best interest of the country. The best defense is a good offense sometimes.”
Jordan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
There’s another key difference between the Church Committee and the weaponization committee. The former was established by a bipartisan Senate vote of 82-4. The weaponization committee, in contrast, was approved by sharp party lines of 221-211, leading political analysts to suspect that its goal, in part, is to damage President Joe Biden and the Democrats ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The Church Committee was so effective, Townsend said, because it had the imprimatur of a bipartisan effort to weed out corruption and abuse within the U.S. intelligence community. “Rep. Jordan and the others involved with this current round of investigations would do well to follow the example of the Church Committee,” says Townsend, “because the Church Committee engaged in very fact intensive, bipartisan, in-depth congressional oversight. They did not have elections in mind.”
To be sure, there’s a recent history of politicized misbehavior within the federal law enforcement agencies. In 2018, the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael Horowitz, issued a report that found fault with some FBI and DOJ actions ahead of the 2016 election, including former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and several instances of impropriety related to the FBI’s probe of Russian interference in that election. Horowitz, for instance, released a batch of text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, both of whom were assigned to the Russia case, that revealed an incontrovertible bias against Trump.
Even the weaponization committee’s critics acknowledge it might dig up genuinely troubling information through subpoenas and investigative interviews.
“I do think that there’s potential that the committee could find something,” Mariotti says. “There are significant issues that law enforcement has.” Specifically, he pointed to one area that the committee could focus on that could generate bipartisan public concern: new technologies that track citizens’ location information in real time.
But the panel’s clearly stated attempt to exonerate Trump, and concerns that it aims to sabotage an ongoing investigation, may undermine any of its investigative findings, especially if they emanate from what seems more than anything like a political exercise rather than an earnest inquiry like the Church Committee’s.
“There are things they could look at,” Mariotti says. “I just don’t have a lot of faith that that’s what they are going to be focused on.”