Imagining a Church Committee for the 21st Century

Jim Jordan’s Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government is a joke. We need a serious investigation into the government’s abuses of power.

After Republicans narrowly reclaimed the House majority, Republican Representative Jim Jordan—one of former President Trump’s most ardent allies—came forth with a noble-sounding proposal for the new Congress, the creation of what has now become the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. Jordan referred to the group  as a “new Church Committee,” a lofty comparison likening it to the blockbuster series of bipartisan investigations helmed by Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church in 1975 and which cataloged decades’ worth of improprieties by the federal government that spanned multiple administrations.

The committee produced six hulking books containing more than 2,700 pages, covering thirty years of activity and constituting the most extensive investigation of the U.S. intelligence apparatus ever made available to the public. Shocking in its revelations, the final report alone documented brazen attacks on free speech, privacy, human rights, and democratic institutions, including the CIA’s unethical experiments with psychedelics, the FBI’s surveillance and infiltration of Black and other leftist radicals, and more. The Committee is considered the gold standard of Congressional inquiries for its breadth, rigor, and evenhandedness.

Jim Jordan’s use of the “Church” moniker, then, implies that his 21st-century committee would have a similarly exhaustive quality, tirelessly documenting decades worth of improprieties. But Jordan admitted that the group would primarily focus on the DOJ’s supposed “double standard” against conservatives—the idea that, in the words of Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, organizations like the FBI and DOJ “operate as vital partners of the left-wing political movement.”

Some of its main tasks, according to an interview from Jordan on Fox News, will be to poke  holes in the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago, the government’s role in policing online disinformation, the Jan. 6 Capitol investigation, and the investigations into Trump’s dealings with the Russian government. While these activities do warrant oversight and accountability, they are far from the greatest overreaches the intelligence bureaucracy has made in even the last decade.

In fact, over the past decade, the FBI, CIA, and other tentacles of the executive branch bureaucracy have engaged in behaviors that rival the skullduggery of the Cold War era. But because many of these actions contradict or complicate the contrived image that Subcommittee members hope to paint of our intelligence agencies as a ruthless Marxist cabal set to persecute freedom-loving conservatives, Jordan and his henchmen will ignore them. And because these actions also complicate the image Jordan’s opponents have of these agencies as bastions of the Rule of Law against an increasingly lawless Republican party and misbehaving foreign heads of state, many Democrats will ignore them, too. Perhaps worst of all, to the uninformed viewer watching this play out, it might seem that the worst thing our intelligence agencies have done in the last decade or so is investigate Donald Trump too hard.1

Jordan’s new Subcommittee has not been well received by the public. According to a poll by the Washington Post and ABC News, only 36 percent of respondents view it as “a legitimate investigation,” while 56 percent see it as “just an attempt to score political points.” This is a shame for a number of reasons. 

For one thing, it invites any uncritical defenders of these agencies in the media and government to dismiss any legitimate findings by this committee as conspiratorial, partisan sludge. But more importantly, the shallowness of Jordan’s subcommittee actually lets the intelligence community off the hook in a major way for real abuses or potential abuses that have never been properly investigated.  

Americans have not witnessed a major Congressional investigation into the inner workings of an agency since 2012, when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the CIA’s use of torture during the War on Terror.2 We do need a Church Committee for the 21st century. But it should embody the curious and collaborative spirit of the original. Rather than serve as a defense force for political allies, it should seek to shine a light on any action that violates our rights to privacy and free expression on the home front and the sovereignty of other nations—regardless of who is responsible.

What Was the Church Committee?

Emerging from the long shadow of the Watergate scandal, the Church Committee’s 14 reports revealed a rash of bald-faced criminality on the part of the nation’s previously hallowed intelligence and law enforcement agencies. After interviewing more than 800 witnesses and combing through more than 100,000 documents, the Committee exhaustively demonstrated “intelligence excesses, at home and abroad,” which were not the “product of any single party, administration, or man,” and that “have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens.”

The Central Intelligence Agency, it found, had systematically orchestrated coups and directed assassinations3 against world leaders deemed unfavorable to its Cold War aims—including democratically elected ones in Iran, The Democratic Republic of the Congo South Vietnam, and Chile4—often replacing them with brutal dictators.  

The Church Committee first informed the public of the CIA’s MKUltra experiments, which used unwitting human subjects to test whether mind-altering drugs like LSD could be used for mind control. “The research and development program, and particularly the covert testing programs, resulted in massive abridgments of the rights of American citizens, sometimes with tragic consequences,” the Committee’s final report stated plainly. “The deaths of two Americans can be attributed to these programs; other participants in the testing programs may still suffer from the residual effects.” Many of its victims were among our society’s most vulnerable: drug-addicted prisoners, sex workers, and terminal cancer patients. In the words of chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who first introduced the CIA to LSD, they were chosen because they “could not fight back.” 

The Committee also uncovered “Project Mockingbird,” showing that, in violation of its 1947 charter as solely a foreign intelligence agency, the CIA had been wiretapping and physically surveilling journalists suspected of publishing leaked information.5 Regular Americans were not safe, either: the Church Committee revealed that the CIA illegally examined around 28 million pieces of mail sent between American citizens and foreign countries.  

The Church Committee revealed that the CIA’s domestic surveillance was merely the tail of a much vaster crusade undertaken by the federal government to infiltrate, defame, and ultimately destroy any activist group deemed “subversive.” Under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)—initially created to snuff out communist groups—the Bureau became a weapon against organizations fighting for Black equality. An FBI memo describes the goal of the program to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black-nationalist, hate-type organizations, and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.”

Among these so-called “hate-type” groups was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, best known for spearheading the lunch counter sit-ins and participating in Freedom Rides that challenged segregation in the Deep South. The category also included organizations that stridently preached nonviolence, such as Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality.

Virtually every Black leader of even modest repute had an FBI file, with the Bureau fearing that any one of them could become a “messiah” figure who could unify a Black nationalist movement. It subjected Malcolm X to near-constant surveillance and sought to foment divisions within the Nation of Islam, which ultimately contributed to his assassination in 1965.6

Undercover agents also infiltrated the Black Panther Party not just to snoop on their activities, but to actively “foster violence” to publicly discredit the group. This culminated in the Chicago Police Department’s late-night assassination, in cahoots with the FBI, of another potential “messiah”: the charismatic young Illinois chairman Fred Hamptonbest known for his efforts to organize a free clinic and breakfast programs for Chicago’s poor children and form the cross-racial workers’ movement that would become the Rainbow Coalition.

Most famously, the Church Committee revealed that, in 1964, the FBI had wiretapped the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and attempted to blackmail him into committing suicide using the recording of an extramarital affair. “You are finished,” read the letter sent to Dr. King by FBI Intelligence Chief William Sullivan. “The American public … will know you for what you are—an evil, abnormal beast. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is.”

The Church Committee also unearthed documents showing that critics of the Vietnam War were subject to the same sort of treatment designed to “neutralize” their activities. Between 1968 and 1971, agents sent anonymous letters informing schools about teachers who had spoken against the war, to get them fired. Others published phony college newspapers filled with violent rhetoric that was then attributed to “New Left” student activists. According to the Committee report, the FBI covertly carried out more than 500,000 investigations of so-called “subversives” between 1960 and 1974, all without a single prosecution.

Frank Church summed up the harrowing implications of all this most succinctly in an interview on Meet the Press in August 1975:

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…

Jordan has attempted to invoke the esteem of the Church Committee name to lend a similar air of historical importance to his own Committee.  

Former members and investigators for the original Church Committee have been quick to call out Jordan’s Committee for the unserious hyperpartisan imitation that it is. Two attorneys who served in key staff positions for the original Church Committee, Loch K. Johnson and Frederick Baron, have called the comparison “preposterous,” while more than two dozen former Church Committee staff sent a letter to Jordan urging his committee to avoid the “prejudgment” of weaponization and advising bipartisanship, noting that Jordan’s concerns are chiefly the FBI’s supposed mistreatment of Trump and other elected Republicans.

This is not to say that none of the actions discussed by the panel are worthy of scrutiny. For example, Jordan raised the issue of whether the federal government leaned on Twitter and Facebook executives to enact bans on certain accounts and stories, as has been alleged by the Twitter Files. Most famously, intelligence officials pressured Twitter to quash a New York Post story from October 2020 about information on sketchy Ukrainian business deals from Hunter Biden’s laptop. Officials wrote a letter suggesting that the materials had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation” though the information was revealed as authentic after the election. While Jordan and his colleagues have overstated the partisan nature of Twitter’s content moderation,7 the decision of Twitter to suppress the story raises real concerns about the ability of federal agencies to influence the flow of online information.

Another potentially noteworthy line of inquiry involves a whistleblower allegation stating, in Jordan’s words, that “agents are pressured to reclassify cases as ‘domestic violent extremism’ cases to hit self-created performance metrics.”  If proven true, this would present a major threat to civil liberties.

But many of the arguments made alleging a wide-ranging scheme to suppress conservatives specifically are easily disproved, sometimes by the documents Republicans themselves have brought forth as evidence.

For example, Jordan has claimed repeatedly that parents have been labeled as “domestic terrorists” by the FBI for “voicing their concerns at school board meetings” about topics like COVID policies and class discussions of race and gender. But the FBI email Jordan received from this whistleblower states that FBI offices were only directed to use this tag in “investigations and assessments of threats specifically directed against school board administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.” So too does the supposedly damning memo issued by Attorney General Merrick Garland which distinguished in the very first paragraph between “spirited debate about policy matters” and “threats of violence.” (These types of threats, it should be mentioned, have become much more frequent over the last few years, as Reuters has documented.)

Loath as I am to defend the FBI’s (in this case, reasonable-sounding) restraint, Jordan’s own sources make it clear they were not labeling regular conservative parents as “domestic terrorists” just for “voicing their concerns” about the (supposed) dangers of drag queens and critical race theory. They were going after direct, violent threats against school officials.

At another point, Senator Johnson attempted to argue that the DOJ has been too harsh in throwing the book at the more than 950 people who have been charged for their role in the January 6 Capitol Riot. “The fervor in which the Biden Department of Justice pursues those protesters and rioters stands in stark contrast to the lack of interest in the summer of 2020 rioters,” Johnson said. He totally ignores the fact that more than 300 people have already been charged by federal prosecutors8 for violence during nationwide racial justice demonstrations, along with around 17,000 more who are estimated to have been arrested by state and local police in the 50 largest cities during the summer of unrest.9 

The credibility of Jordan’s whistleblowers has also been called into question. According to a report released by the Democratic side of the committee, Jordan’s first three whistleblowers have all received payment from former Trump administration officials Kash Patel and Russ Vought, who were said to have “identified these witnesses, provided them with financial compensation, and found them employment after they left the FBI.”

It’s clear that Jordan’s approach—to force every legitimate discussion of government overreach into a half-cocked partisan narrative—has had a deleterious effect on his committee’s credibility at large. More broadly, by focusing so much on either ridiculous, disprovable nonsense or granular questions of procedure that only affect Trump and other Republican elites, Jordan effectively creates a smokescreen to cover the wide range of actual malfeasances that Congress should be investigating. With this in mind, let’s imagine what a Church Committee successor worthy of that moniker might investigate.

A Church Committee for the 21st Century

This is by no means an encompassing list of every event or action worth investigating, but simply a survey of the events that most closely parallel those uncovered by the original Church Committee in severity and type, and which occurred over roughly the same period Jordan is investigating. 

Fomenting Violent Extremism

Decades after COINTELPRO was laid bare for the American public, the FBI is still helping to provoke radical groups and individuals to violence. Young Muslim men are most often the targets. According to a 2013 book, The Terror Factory, written by Schuster Institute Fellow Trevor Aaronson, since 9/11, the FBI has 

built a network of more than 15,000 informants to infiltrate Muslim communities and ferret out would-be terrorists. The Bureau then provides the means necessary for these would-be terrorists to move forward with a terrorist plot—in some cases even planting specific ideas for attacks … and has been responsible for hatching and financing more terrorist plots in the United States than any other [organization.]

Aaronson investigated more than 150 FBI sting operations involving international terrorism over ten years. Few of the men prosecuted had any material connections to terrorist organizations and even fewer had the ability to carry out an attack on their own. In one of every three terrorist plots Aaronson cataloged, an FBI informant was the person leading the planning, with the Bureau often providing the necessary weapons, transportation, and money.

Several of the highest profile plots to be supposedly foiled by the FBI over the last two decades have turned out to have been entirely stitched up by the Bureau. Sami Osmakac, a broke and mentally ill 25-year-old who was nabbed after recording a “martyrdom video” in 2012 in which he made threats while posing with an AK-47 and a pistol, had no connections to any terror organizations and was given all his weapons by a paid informant. The same was true of Amine El Khalifi, an unemployed Moroccan man who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2012. He was charged with plotting a suicide bombing on Capitol Hill in league with Al Qaeda. It was later revealed that El Khalifi had been repeatedly egged on by an undercover agent pretending to be a member of Al Qaeda and was provided with the suicide vest and gun by undercover agents. Four Muslim men from the impoverished city of Newburgh, New York, received 25 years in prison for plotting to bomb synagogues and attack military planes. But it was later revealed that they had been set up by an undercover agent posing as a Muslim radical who had schooled them in the tenets of Jihad and paid one of them to bring the other three into the plot. 

Despite Aaronson and other journalists reporting on the matter, more recent stories show that the FBI has not scaled back this type of entrapment. For example, in 2017, a story emerged about a suicidal 21-year-old pizza delivery man, Khalil Abu Rayyan. The FBI attempted to lure him into committing a violent attack by posing as a young Muslim woman seeking a romantic relationship. As Rayyan expressed his depression and suicidal ideation, the FBI, through their fabricated love interest, instead pushed Rayyan to attack a church. When he resisted, the police picked him up on an unrelated gun possession charge, leading to a five-year prison sentence.

According to a database kept by Trevor Aaronson and Margot Williams of The Intercept, nearly half of all international terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 have involved federal informants. “Very few terrorism defendants,” they conclude, “had the means or opportunity to commit an act of violence. The majority had no direct connection to terrorist organizations.” Aaronson argues in The Terror Factory that the FBI pushes these men towards terrorism to justify to the public its gigantic counterterrorism budget, while individual agents receive financial incentives to “foil” terror plots.

Muslim men are the most common victims of these types of setups, but by no means are they the only demographic to be targeted. One of the highest profile terror plots to be foiled in recent memory—the plan by right-wing militia members to kidnap “tyrant” Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who had instituted what they believed were authoritarian COVID mitigation measures—also appears to have been nudged along by FBI infiltrators, at least 12 of whom were working on the case with some posing as militia members. According to an analysis of the case from BuzzFeed News, undercover agents egged on the kidnapping plot, helping to arrange the initial meetings, and providing ideas to make the attack more effective and violent (one of the feds, posing as an “explosives expert,” provided them with information about explosives they could use to blow up a bridge near Whitmer’s house).

Just as radical right-wingers attracted government surveillance and infiltration amid the social unrest of 2020 (and early 2021), so too did racial justice groups that took to the streets to protest police brutality in 2020.

A recent report from The Intercept revealed that a camo-clad activist in Denver named Michael Adam Windecker II was actually an FBI saboteur with a long criminal rap sheet. Windecker had been paid $20,000 by the Bureau to entrap two prominent Black activists. Despite their repeated resistance, Windecker tried to convince them to commit violent acts, like blowing up a courthouse or buying guns to kill the state attorney general.

 The reveal of Windecker as an agent provocateur confirmed something that had long been suspected by racial justice protesters who peacefully demonstrated in the summer of 2020: just as it did during the Civil Rights era, the FBI was actively seeking to break up and demonize their activities by casting the entire movement as a violent terrorist threat. 

Surveillance and Abuse of Protesters and Political Dissidents

Police repression of peaceful protests only reaffirms the idea that law enforcement views all Black activism as a potential danger. In the 50 largest cities, more than 17,000 protesters were arrested during protests in the summer of 2020, according to police data reviewed by the Washington Post. In the 15 largest cities, the overwhelming majority—around 78 percent of those arrested—were accused of only nonviolent misdemeanors like resisting curfew or emergency orders. More than 125 reporters were also detained throughout 2020, most of whom were never charged with a crime. One database documented nearly 1,000 cases of “violence or serious misconduct by law enforcement agents” that were caught on camera during just a three month span—they show protesters, medics, and press being beaten, blasted with tear gas, run over with police vehicles, and fired upon with “less-lethal” bullets.10

Federal agents contributed in no small part to the crackdown, often using tactics that brazenly violated the privacy and speech rights of demonstrators. The Drug Enforcement Agency—whose mandate is to investigate drug crimes and not to police protests—approved at least 51 requests for covert surveillance of racial justice groups during the summer of 2020, including having plainclothes officers infiltrate crowds and identify protest leaders. Though the threat of “looting” or “rioting” was often mentioned as a pretext, many of the requests involved the surveillance of protests specifically advertised as peaceful.11

The FBI was reported to have interrogated protesters arrested for curfew violations about their political views—which is considered “off limits” for policing First Amendment Events and contradicts statements that the Bureau “does not investigate ideology.”12 Other organizers of nonviolent events reported being followed by FBI agents to their homes and workplaces for questioning about their political goals. The NYPD also apparently held people arrested for curfew violations for questioning about their “views on anti-fascism.”

In July 2020, more than 750 agents with the Department of Homeland Security were sent to protect federal buildings in Portland but wound up abducting demonstrators, loading them into unmarked vans and questioning them far away from any federal property. With complete disregard for normal police protocol, they did this, in some cases, without identifying themselves or accusing their captives of any crime. 

New technology also vastly expanded the ability to spy on protesters without detection and collect data on their identities—a likely violation of the right to anonymous speech that has been upheld by the Supreme Court numerous times. DHS flew military helicopters and Predator drones over at least 15 cities throughout 2020 to collect hundreds of hours of protest footage—a program that remains secretive despite Freedom of Information requests from civil rights groups. At least six federal agencies also used facial recognition software to identify protesters. While the agencies claim it was only used in criminal investigations, this was not always the case. For example, police in South Florida kept a database on peaceful participants who were not suspected of any crime. 

But perhaps the most bone-chilling single act conducted by law enforcement over this period was ordered by President Trump himself. In October 2020, federal marshals shot and killed a self-described “anti-fascist” activist named Michael Reinoehl. He had been wanted on second-degree murder charges for the killing of an armed Trump-supporter in what he claimed was an act of self-defense. Soon after, Trump began to publicly boast that he had ordered the marshals to assassinate Reinoehl as an act of “retribution.” “They didn’t want to arrest him,” he said before a baying crowd. He elaborated in a Fox News interview:

Two and a half days went by, and I put out [on Twitter], ‘when are you going to go get him?’ and the U.S. Marshals went in to get him. …  The U.S. Marshals killed him. … That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution…

One’s opinion on Antifa or whether you believe Reinoehl truly acted in self-defense is beside the point.13 A president ordering federal marshals to murder an American citizen who had not been convicted of a crime or even brought before a jury for the purpose of “retribution” represents the height of lawlessness. The truly concerning part is Trump’s obvious lack of awareness that this sort of action is anathema to what we, as Americans, are taught to believe about the justice system. But everything I’ve discussed demonstrates that he’s not wrong to feel that sense of impunity. The notion that federal authorities are grunts to be sicced on anyone troublesome doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is built upon decades of law enforcement acting that way, totally free of consequence, against political enemies.

That sense of impunity is twofold when American presidents deal with foreign countries. In polls, Americans say they don’t care very much about foreign policy and presumably notice even less when something grotesque happens beyond our shores.

Orchestrating Foreign Coups

Just as the Church Committee documented during the Cold War period, the U.S. government is still covertly orchestrating coups, sabotaging foreign elections, and has as recently as 2017 been found to support a majority of the world’s dictators.  

The U.S. backed the Bolivian military when it forced recently re-elected left-wing president Evo Morales to flee the country in 2019. The Trump administration, along with the U.S.-led Organization of American States, led the way in pushing an absurd narrative that Morales’ victory had been marred by fraud and even sheltered the coup leaders in America. With the U.S.’s blessing,  Jeanine Añez, a fundamentalist Christian,14was installed as the interim president of Bolivia until new elections could be held. For the next year—before Morales’ party won again by an even greater marginAñez’s government shut down critical media outlets, arrested journalists and opposition politicians, and cracked down on peaceful demonstrations while beginning to sell off many of Bolivia’s bountiful natural resources to multinational corporations.15

Another coup attempt in economically ravaged Venezuela16is also laden with American fingerprints. Embattled President Nicolás Maduro in 2020 faced an attempted overthrow when a group of Venezuelan expatriates led by the owner of an American security company (which had provided security at several Trump rallies) landed on the shores of the country with a plan to launch a rebellion against Maduro. (The year before, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó had undemocratically declared himself Venezuela’s president,with U.S. and allies’ approval). Like with the Bolivia coup, the exact contours of government involvement are unknown. However, we know that Trump had frequently told aides and National Security Council members about his desire to invade Venezuela, an idea they often had to talk him out of. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have said they sought regime change in Venezuela.

Intervention in Latin America may be brewing under Biden as well. His administration has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a military option for Haiti—a country the U.S. has dominated for more than a century through a 20-year military occupation, rapacious trade agreements, and support for coups that installed pro-American dictators. Haiti was rocked by a political crisis in 2021 when its prime minister Jovenel Moïse was assassinated (with many clues pointing to U.S. involvement). As the country has fallen into economic deterioration, gang violence, and a horrifying cholera outbreak, protesters have demanded the resignation of the U.S.-backed acting prime minister Ariel Henry, who seized power after Moise’s assassination and is suspected to have been involved in the plot. Henry has asked the Biden administration to send U.S. troops to help him hold control of the country. After U.N. General Secretary António Guterres called for an invasion, protests grew louder against another foreign occupation, and dissenters expressed fears that the U.S. would use its might to crush them.

Conducting Deadly Covert Airstrikes

The last decade-plus has also seen an explosion in the use of covert airstrikes as a key fixture of U.S. warfare—a practice that has been widely criticized but continues to rumble along with little Congressional oversight.17 The use of unmanned drones has become a major fixture of sweeping aerial war that spans across borders in the Middle East and central Asia.

Using the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—which gives the president carte blanche to strike virtually anyone deemed a threat and without Congressional approval—the use of drones exploded during the Obama years.

Though Obama lauded them as “exceptionally surgical and precise” without putting “innocent men, women, and children in danger,” U.S. drone strikes between 2009 and 2017 killed an estimated 3,797 people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Throughout the Obama presidency, the CIA and military launched these “surgical and precise” strikes against groups who had no discernible connection to terrorism, infamously blowing up funerals and weddings with drones and launching an airstrike against an Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan. Senior Obama administration officials used statistical trickery to assure the public that the number of civilian deaths was in the single digits, while Obama himself only admitted to between 64 and 116 civilian deaths from drones throughout his entire term.

To his credit, Obama scaled down the drone program in his second term, requiring casualty reports and clarifying some rules around who could be targeted, but the damage was done. He had normalized the extrajudicial assassinations of any foreigner (or even American citizens in some cases) who could be even tangentially linked to terrorism. 

While making the practice much more secretive, Trump used drones even more than Obama.  He shredded the modest safeguards Obama put in place, leading to at least a threefold spike in civilian deaths during his first year in office.  AirWars estimates that over seven countries, anywhere from 22,679 to 48,308 civilians had been killed as a result of all covert airstrikes since September 11, 2001.

Imprisoning and Attacking Journalists

While the people responsible for illegal (or legal but morally questionable) government behaviors rarely ever face accountability, blowing the whistle on these abuses can send the full weight of the state crashing down on someone. NSA official Daniel Hale was sentenced to nearly four years in prison after he revealed the existence of some drone operations in Afghanistan that killed almost entirely civilians and undermined the U.S. line on their low risk of collateral damage. Julian Assange faces the possibility of life in prison since leaking evidence of U.S. war crimes provided by Private Chelsea Manning (also locked up for years). And for publishing evidence of a massive, completely secret CIA hacking programwhich allows the Agency to covertly open mobile phone messages, turn Smart TVs into microphones, and even take remote control of some modern carsAssange was marked for assassination by the director of the CIA.

There are plenty of other incidents and ongoing practices that also warrant investigation:

  1. The CIA’s 2014 attempts to sabotage the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into its torture program: CIA officials hacked into Senate Intelligence Committee computers during an active investigation at the order of Director John Brennan, who then lied about it to Congress.
  2. The CIA’s covert arming of the Al-Nusra Front to overthrow the government of Syria: Leaked emails indicate that administration officials were aware that U.S. arms were being used by the Al Qaeda affiliate, such as one from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reading, “AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.”
  3. The “Afghanistan Papers,” which revealed that top military commanders and presidents had lied voluminously about U.S. progress during the 20-year-war: High-ranking officials believed the war had been lost for years while keeping that sentiment hidden from the public while presidential administrations pushed rosy statistics they knew were false.
  4. The alleged efforts of the Biden administration to forestall peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine: This has been suggested by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and is bolstered by Pulitzer-winning journalist Seymour Hersh’s report detailing of a U.S. plot to blow up the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so it could not be used as a point of leverage by Russia against European allies.
  5. The CIA’s bulk data collection program: In 2022, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich released a letter requesting that the CIA declassify information about a program of warrantless bulk surveillance that could allow the Agency to illegally search through Americans’ data.

In all of these stories and countless others, the American public can only see the shadow of the government’s true power. Jim Jordan hasn’t gotten much right in pursuing his shallow investigation, but he has identified one undeniable truism about investigating the intelligence bureaucracy: “With all these things that we start to investigate, it seems to me that the central theme is … it’s always worse than we thought.”

We shouldn’t have to rely on sporadic news coverage and misleading government reports to figure out how bad things are. One of Congress’ primary roles as a co-equal branch of government is the ability to conduct oversight. By holding high-profile hearings with intelligence officials, military commanders, and presidential appointees, it can contribute to a culture of greater accountability. But ultimately, investigations are just the start of a long process of taming the great security leviathan we have created. There have been virtually no consequences for anyone involved in the many crimes surveyed here. Congress cannot levy criminal charges itself (other than through constitutional measures like impeachment). But by airing out vast sums of dirty laundry at once—rather than the slow drip of scandal we are used to—it can demonstrate how these abuses are not simply the providence of individual bad actors, but the natural outcome of a system that combines perverse incentives with unfathomable power and resources. 

Just as the original Church Committee did, a sweeping investigation of our modern intelligence establishment can show us what the powerful are capable of saying and doing when they believe nobody is watching. Every abuse of power by our federal bureaucracy makes it clearer that the current leaders of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies don’t believe anyone is watching them now. Now is the time to start.

Frank Church holds CIA poison dart gun at committee hearing with vice chairman John Tower on September 17, 1975 (Source: U.S. Capitol, photo by Henry Griffin)

  1. This is not an exaggeration. It’s a paraphrase of something Ron Johnson actually said in his testimony before the committee when he called the DOJ investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia “the most destructive political dirty trick in U.S. history.” 

  2. More often than not, shocking revelations will percolate through the news and public discourse and raise public ire, before eventually fizzling out under the deluge of other chronic political outrages. Think about how concerned Americans were ten years ago when ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden first revealed that the National Security Agency had been illegally collecting their phone records and internet search data. Now consider that there was no Congressional probe into the NSA’s actions at the time, and those same spying powers were quietly renewed under President Trump in 2018 and will likely be renewed again this year by President Biden. 

  3. The CIA most famously attempted to have Cuban leader Fidel Castro assassinated more than 600 times.  In the early days of his reign, the Agency experimented with a number of Wile E. Coyote-style hijinks to bump off El Jefe, like handing him an explosive cigar and lacing his scuba gear with toxic fungus. They also sought other plans meant to discredit Castro, like dosing him with LSD before a speech or dusting his shoes with a chemical that would cause his beard to fall out. The Agency also enlisted the help of notorious mobsters Santo Trafficante and Sam Giancana to help execute plots to deliver poison pills to Castro, at one point through an ice cream cone from a Havana cafe. 

  4. The Church Committee only scratched the surface of America’s covert regime change operations. Later disclosures revealed the U.S.’s direct role in funding the overthrow of democratically-elected leftist president Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala in 1954, which plunged the country into more than 30 years of dictatorship. The same was true in Brazil, where Labor Party leader João “Jango” Goulart was deposed after being falsely accused of communist sympathies by right-wing militants who later established a pro-U.S. dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. In 1965, the CIA assisted in overthrowing the Indonesian president who had freed the nation from Dutch colonialism, and helped the military to carry out the mass murder of anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 people accused of harboring leftist sympathies or supporting the old government—most of them poor Javanese peasants. 

  5. This is not to be confused with the similarly named “Operation Mockingbird,” under which the CIA directly employed at least 50 mainstream journalists to spread pro-U.S. and pro-Agency propaganda as news (Carl Bernstein later reported that the number was actually more than 400). 

  6. The two men initially convicted of Malcolm X’s 1965 murder were exonerated in 2021 after the New York District Attorney admitted that the FBI and NYPD had withheld exculpatory evidence and that many witnesses in the trial were working as FBI informants. This year, Malcolm X’s family launched a lawsuit alleging that the government was directly involved in his assassination. They have cited a letter written by a former NYPD officer who says he participated in a plot to murder the civil rights leader as well as documents that reveal orders from J. Edgar Hoover in 1964—a year before the assassination—for the Bureau’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.” 

  7. An internal study by Twitter from 2018 found that “the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left.” Jordan, meanwhile, has only emphasized requests from the Biden administration to take down right-leaning information, even though the Trump campaign and GOP lawmakers also made these requests and had many of them honored by Twitter—they did this so often that Trump officials described having a “hotline” or tip line for requests, and Twitter had an entire database to process the “voluminous” number of them. Twitter executives have also testified that they went out of their way to avoid taking down Trump posts that violated Twitter’s terms of service to avoid appearing overly partisan. 

  8. Actions at the Capitol Riot can automatically result in federal charges because they  took place inside the federal legislature. This means it’s entirely reasonable for a federal agency to pursue these charges. Also, it’s much easier to charge people with crimes when they post videos online of themselves

  9. It should be noted that the vast majority of these people were not arrested for violence, but for nonviolent misdemeanors like violating curfew or emergency orders.  If anything, this demonstrates an extreme overzealousness on the part of law enforcement. 

  10.  Peaceful protesters in several cities were also “kettled,” or trapped with no means of exit, by police officers while being subject to assault with various “less-than-lethal” weapons. In Charlotte, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were deliberately trapped on a city street between a line of officers in riot gear on one side and a cloud of tear gas on the other. Without giving a dispersal order, police then fired upon the captive group with tear gas, pepper balls, and flash-bang grenades. In Philadelphia, demonstrators stuck on a highway embankment were blasted with tear gas with no means of dispersing. The New York Police Department, meanwhile, kettled more than 300 peaceful protesters in a Bronx neighborhood before beating them with batons, kicking them, punching them, and spraying them with pepper spray, leading to at least 61 injuries. The NYPD will be forced to settle with the victims for $21,500 apiece over the attack, which was revealed to have been premeditated at the Department’s highest levels. 

  11. Some of the names of these menacing events include:  “Peaceful March: South Street to City Hall,” “Mt. Airy Solidarity March,” “4th Annual Stop Killing Us (SKU) March to DC!,” “George Floyd – Peaceful protest,” and “Candle Light Vigil for Breonna Taylor.” 

  12. According to DOJ guidelines for state and local cops on policing First Amendment events: “Police should not engage in unauthorized enforcement activities, including unauthorized information collection on individuals or groups. There should be no collections of information on persons based solely on their ethnicity, national origin, race, sexual orientation, or support for unpopular causes. While on duty, police officers should make no comments to event participants regarding support for or opposition to the causes or beliefs they are promoting.” 

  13. For the many who celebrated and gloated after Reinoehl’s killing: I invite you to imagine whether you’d feel similarly in an alternative scenario in which a Democratic president ordered federal agents to hunt down and execute Kyle Rittenhouse before his trial. 

  14. Añez’s takeover from Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Morales, was particularly painful given her history of racist remarks demeaning the country’s Indigenous population: she had called Indigenous religious practices “satanic” and described Morales’ largely Indigenous supporters as “savages.” 

  15. The nationalization of these industries by Morales had contributed to the steady growth of Bolivia’s GDP and allowed his government to invest in education, purchase land that was then redistributed to the poor, and fund social safety net programs. During his tenure, deep poverty in the country—felt most acutely among the Indigenous population—was reduced by more than half. 

  16. This crisis has made Venezuela a poster child of sorts for extremely facile arguments about the dangers of any even mildly socialist form of governance. It is often invoked as a cynical scare tactic to demonize proposals for public healthcare, housing, or wage controls. These arguments often totally ignore that Venezuela’s economy boomed and poverty declined for more than a decade under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Its free fall only began once the global price of petroleum—by far the nation’s greatest export and source of wealth—tanked in 2014 and 2015. The crisis was then exacerbated by the harsh U.S. sanctions imposed in 2017, which have cost Venezuela $17 billion to $31 billion in revenues and made it much more difficult to import badly needed food and medicine. Chávez and Maduro shoulder a large amount of the blame for failing to diversify the nation’s economy, using state resources to enrich political allies, and cracking down violently on opposition. But to call Venezuela’s fate an inevitability for any country that nationalizes key industries or adopts social welfare policies is ridiculous, as data from other countries clearly shows. 

  17. In one of the most pleasant surprises of his thus-far underwhelming presidential tenure, President Biden has drastically reduced the use of drones to an all-time low since the program’s inception. This has gone virtually unremarked upon by the media or the administration. 

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Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

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