The House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, which had its first hearing last week, is modeled largely after a similar Senate committee that investigated U.S. intelligence agencies during the mid-1970s.
The Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities was better known as the Church committee, named for its late chairman, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.
After the Nov. 8 midterm elections that saw Republicans win a narrow House majority, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus called for something similar to a Church committee to look into similar issues today with government agencies.
In a December letter, the Freedom Caucus lawmakers noted politicization of the FBI and other agencies that targeted not only former President Donald Trump but conservative citizens, such as pro-life activists and parents speaking up at local school board meetings.
“The conservative movement increasingly knows what time it is in America,” Spencer Chretien, associate director of the 2025 Presidential Transition Project at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in January for The American Conservative. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
More and more of our politicians are willing to use the government to achieve our vision, because the neutrality of ‘keeping the government out of it’ will lose every time to the Left’s vast power. The calls for a ‘new Church committee’ represent a momentous shift in energy; while conservatives used to lament liberal Sen. Frank Church’s original project as a kooky leftist attack against ‘The Brave Men And Women of Our Intelligence Community,’ we’re now the ones agitating for Congress to go after the three-letter agencies.
Here’s what to know about the Church committee, and how it might guide the new House select subcommittee chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
1. How the Church Committee Began
Before the Church committee was formed, an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities—better known as the Watergate Committee—discovered that the Nixon administration had directed national intelligence agencies to carry out domestic security operations.
Supporters of President Richard Nixon, a Republican, responded that similar activity occurred under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, both led by Democrats.
As a result, some bipartisan support developed for looking into government activity after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
Also in 1974, The New York Times’ Seymour Hersh reported that the CIA had spied on activists opposed to the Vietnam War for more than 10 years. Several senators called for oversight.
On Jan. 21, 1975, Sen. John Pastore, D-R.I., proposed a resolution for a select committee to investigate federal intelligence agencies. The resolution read, in part:
To establish a select committee of the Senate to conduct an investigation and study of governmental operations with respect to intelligence activities and of the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper, or unethical activities were engaged in by any agency of the federal government or by any persons, acting individually or in combination with others, with respect to any intelligence activity carried out by or on behalf of the federal government.
Today’s select committee on weaponization of the government was approved Jan. 10 by a party-line vote of 221-211 in the House, with Democrats opposing it. In January 1975, the Senate approved what would become the Church committee by a vote of 82-4.
The four opponents were Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.; Herman Talmadge, D-Ga.; William Scott, R-Va.; and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., all of them expressing concerns that such an investigation could handcuff intelligence agencies.
2. Notable Members of Church Committee
According to the official Senate history of the Church committee, then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., did not want the Senate select committee to “become a television extravaganza.”
This approach was in sharp contrast to the made-for-TV hearings held over 48 years later by the Democrat-dominated House select committee investigating the Capitol riot that occurred Jan. 6, 2021.
For the Church committee, Mansfield and then-Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., selected a mix of experienced, well-known senators and junior members. Some of those junior members would go on to become quite well-known. The two leaders wanted to ensure that the committee included a variety of viewpoints.
Sen. Phillip Hart, D-Mich., was Mansfield’s first choice as chairman. Hart declined for health reasons but served as a committee member.
So Mansfield picked Church, then a 16-year member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Church previously had been co-chairman of a special committee investigating the executive branch’s consolidation of power in the Cold War era.
Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, a member of the Armed Services Committee, served as vice chairman of the new panel. In 1986, the Texas Republican ran the so-called Tower Commission investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. (He also became President George H.W. Bush’s first nominee as defense secretary in 1989, but the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected the nomination.)
In all, six Democrats and five Republicans sat on the Senate’s Church committee, some of whom would become better known in the years ahead.
The House select subcommittee on weaponization of government is larger, with 13 Republican members, including Ohio’s Jordan as chairman, and 10 Democrats, including ranking member Del. Stacey Plasket, D-Virgin Islands.
Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., who had been Republicans’ 1964 presidential nominee, was a high-profile member of the Church committee.
So was Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., who joined the committee the year before he was tapped as Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s running mate in his successful race for president. After Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election, Mondale became Democrats’ nominee for president in 1984, when he lost 49 states in Reagan’s reelection.
Also on the Church committee was Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., whose name would become synonymous with scandal years later. Hart went on to enter the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries as a frontrunner, but dropped out of the race after news broke of his extramarital affair.
Other members included Sens. Walter Huddleston, D-Ky.; Charles Mathias, R-Md.; Sen. Robert Morgan, D-N.C.; and Sen. Richard Schweiker, R-Pa. Huddleston would be ousted from his seat in 1984 by current Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Church used the notoriety of his select committee’s work to launch a failed campaign for Democrats’ presidential nomination in March 1976, a month before the release of the committee’s final report. Church ultimately lost his Senate seat in the 1980 election.
3. How Investigation Was Conducted
The Church committee’s investigation of intelligence agencies was supposed to wrap up within a year, but it was extended to 16 months. At its peak, the committee had 150 staff investigators.
The committee held 126 meetings, interviewed some 800 witnesses in public and closed sessions, and reviewed about 110,000 documents.
Church and Tower, as chairman and vice chairman, met with President Gerald Ford and White House national security officials. Ford pledged that the White House would cooperate.
The committee conducted most of its investigation behind closed doors in executive session, to protect intelligence-gathering sources and methods.
The committee obtained access to what was called the CIA’s “family jewels,” documents that detailed the agency’s questionable conduct going back to the Eisenhower administration.
The committee also found out about two National Security Agency’s projects, dubbed SHAMROCK and MINARET, which monitored wire communications to and from the United States and shared some data with other intelligence agencies.
The committee found that the FBI ran a covert operation called COINTELPRO “to disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order.”
The FBI’s targets included civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; activists in the anti-war movement; and government officials at the federal, state, and local levels.
After wrapping up much of its investigation behind closed doors, the Chuch committee held several public hearings in September and October 1975 that highlighted cases of official misconduct.
The committee’s hearings focused on the CIA’s biological agents program; a White House domestic surveillance program; IRS intelligence activities; and the FBI program to disrupt the civil rights and anti-war movements, according to the Senate’s historical overview.
4. Committee Report and Aftermath
The Church committee released its final report almost 47 years ago, on April 29, 1976.
The report found that the agencies’ misconduct dated back over 30 years to the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt and continued through the 1970s, and was not the “product of any single party, administration, or man.”
The report said:
Intelligence agencies have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens, primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied. …
There is no inherent constitutional authority for the president or any intelligence agency to violate the law.
Tower, in a minority opinion, acknowledged abuses and the need for greater oversight. However, the committee’s Republican vice chairman warned that Congress shouldn’t unnecessarily restrain the executive branch from using discretion in national security, particularly during the Cold War.
The Church committee’s final report made 96 recommendations from a majority of its members. One of the committee’s biggest legacies was establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence under Senate Resolution 400. The House followed suit, establishing its own intelligence committee.
Another legacy was Congress’ passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which Carter signed into law. The law established FISA courts to approve warrants for wiretapping and surveillance of American citizens.
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The post 4 Ways Church Committee Precedent of 1970s Could Guide House’s Probe of ‘Weaponized’ Agencies appeared first on The Daily Signal.
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