past is prologue

Trump Allies’ Post-Raid Probe Won’t Be Anything Like the Church Committee

Frank Church with Joe Biden in 1980. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In their fury at the FBI for conducting a raid at Mar-a-Lago even as the agency lets Hillary Clinton and Hunter Biden run free, some of Donald Trump’s allies are citing the Church Committee as precedent for the vengeance they hope to mete out if they win control of either branch of Congress in November. The Washington Times reports:

“I think back to the example of the Church Committee … I think we’ve got to fundamentally change the Justice Department and the FBI,” Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Times. …

Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, also said that a Church-style Committee hearing is likely the path Republicans would take to investigate the Justice Department.

Indeed, some Trump fans think a congressional investigation would just be the beginning:

Michael Caputo, a veteran GOP political strategist who worked as an official in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration, said “President Biden will be indicted in 2025. So will his son, and so will his brother. It’s a metaphysical certitude.”

“All of the preliminary investigations that need to happen to return an indictment can be done by the House,” Mr. Caputo said. “Those investigations will take time. And they can begin January,” adding that he likes the Church Committee aspect.

If he is able to monitor this talk from the great beyond, the late Senator Frank Church is probably surprised at his legislative handiwork being hijacked for such purposes (and particularly to take down his Senate colleague Joe Biden). To use its official name, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities was a bipartisan undertaking in 1975–76 that analyzed decades of previously secret abuses of power by intelligence agencies under both Democratic and Republican administrations. It did not focus on just one agency like today’s Republicans tend to do, but on the CIA, the NSA, the IRS, and the FBI. And it didn’t aim for criminal indictments of political leaders or their appointees; its goal was to create a process for holding intelligence agencies accountable, which was met with the establishment of House and Senate Intelligence Committees in 1976 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

The spark that touched off the Church Committee investigation (along with its less prominent and legislatively productive House counterpart, the Pike Committee) wasn’t some discrete FBI action, but the revelation by journalists — especially the New York TimesSeymour Hersh — of inherently illegal CIA operations within the United States against antiwar dissidents. By then the FBI’s long campaign of harassment and intimidation of civil rights leaders during the long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover was beginning to become well understood. And the Church Committee soon revealed evidence of illegal surveillance activities by the NSA and rogue operations by the CIA (most notably, efforts to overthrow democratically elected foreign governments, as the agency had done recently in Chile).

While some political manipulation of intelligence agencies was discovered, far and away the main focus of the Church Committee was lack of control of the agencies by responsible political authorities, who often had their own agendas. And although there were some partisan tensions surrounding the hearings (much of it emanating from a Ford White House deputy chief of staff named Dick Cheney, who tried to limit disclosure of intelligence agency documents), the legitimacy of the inquiry was accepted across party lines. Republicans on the Church Committee itself included vice-chairman John Tower and former GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater; future vice-president and presidential nominee Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Gary Hart were among the Democrats.

The Senate’s official history of the Church Committee summarizes its findings as follows:

After holding 126 full committee meetings, 40 subcommittee hearings, interviewing some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and combing through 110,000 documents, the committee published its final report on April 29, 1976. Investigators determined that, beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and continuing through the early 1970s, “intelligence excesses, at home and abroad,” were not the “product of any single party, administration, or man,” but had developed as America rose to a become a superpower during a global Cold War.

You do not get the sense that anything like this kind of general, bipartisan review is on the minds of those calling for “Church-style hearings” today.

Somewhat ironically, the last time we heard widespread talk of a “21st-century Church Committee,” it emerged from the political left — specifically, from former Church Committee staffers concerned about alleged abuses of the FISA process for securing warrantless searches during the Bush administration’s so-called “War on Terror.” Perhaps some MAGA bravos share Trump’s own well-documented hatred of the Bush family and all its works. But it’s unlikely a House Republican investigation stemming from the Mar-a-Lago raid is going to be interested in vindicating Muslim or antiwar victims of Bush-era spying.

The relatively few critics of the Church Committee beyond the ranks of intelligence operatives themselves often focused on its chairman’s own political ambitions. Frank Church did indeed launch a late presidential campaign in 1976 soon after the hearings ended, as he and California governor Jerry Brown unsuccessfully sought to deny Jimmy Carter the Democratic presidential nomination by running against him in different primaries (Church won in Nebraska, Oregon, Montana, and his native Idaho). After four full terms in the Senate, Church narrowly lost in the great Republican landslide of 1980, and soon died prematurely after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

If putative house speaker Kevin McCarthy sets up his own version of the Church Committee in 2023, it won’t be to promote himself as a presidential candidate, but to help place Donald Trump back in the White House soon thereafter. Anyone who thinks that outcome will promote a more lawful, transparent, and accountable federal government has not been paying attention at all.

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Trump Allies’ Probe Won’t Be Anything Like Church Committee