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The Show Trial of the Century?

The FBI needs reform but House Republicans are staging a witch hunt, argues the former senior aide to the 1970s Church Committee

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The Show Trial of the Century?
U.S. Sen. Frank Church holds an Electric Dart gun during Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearings on Sept. 9, 1975. (Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo)

Over the summer, as Republicans appeared poised to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives, a right-wing interest group called the Center for Renewing America released a report with a provocative declaration: “A Partisan, Weaponized FBI Must Be Broken Up.”

The report read like a wish list of what the Republican Party would do if it returned to power — from slashing the bureau’s budget to pressuring the president to fire its director. But the starting point would be a special investigation, modeled after the strongest challenge the FBI has ever faced: the investigative committee led by Sen. Frank Church in the 1970s.

This caught my attention, and not just because I’ve spent decades as a scholar of the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community. I was the senior aide to Church during his momentous probe, helping to uncover a culture of lawlessness at the bureau and interviewing some of its worst perpetrators under oath. The public hearings penetrated the secrecy that had allowed the FBI and other government agencies to spy on Americans and violate their rights, sparking new laws and major reforms. I understand how the power of such a committee can be used for good.

I also know how dangerous this power might be if used for partisan purposes, which, unfortunately, now seems imminent. Since Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in November, their calls for a new Church-style committee have grown louder. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, perhaps best known for the Select Committee on Benghazi circus, is soon to become chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Before his party has even taken over control of the House, Jordan has already sent letters to the Department of Justice and FBI requesting documents and threatening new congressional probes. He and other Republican lawmakers have spent months interviewing self-styled FBI whistleblowers and collecting other testimony.

The charges Republicans make are serious. They start with the well-worn — and unwarranted — claims that the FBI has targeted former President Donald Trump and his associates for political reasons. That saga began with the Russiagate investigation in 2016 and continued through the raid on his home at Mar-a-Lago this past August over his allegedly illegal retention of classified documents. But the charges also expand far beyond Trump, claiming persecution of ordinary people with conservative views. According to the Center for Renewing America report — which captures the combative mood among Republicans — the FBI has become a tool for Democrats bent on “political vengeance on perceived enemies of those in power.”

I have no illusions about the FBI. It has done valuable work and committed terrible abuses. I have long put forward my own recommendations for further reforming it. Unfortunately, Republicans appear to be invoking Church’s legacy not to push for real solutions, as the late senator did, but to obtain impunity for themselves and punish their enemies. In the process, they’re misrepresenting the committee’s storied history. It’s time to correct the record.

In the winter of 1975, I boarded a flight from Washington, D.C., to Toronto with a briefcase full of freshly declassified documents. Out my window, snow drifted down from a cement-colored sky. As the plane lifted into the air, I felt tense pondering the task before me.

In Toronto, I knocked on a door inside a high-rise apartment building, and a bespectacled, elderly man with white hair smiled warmly and invited me inside. He was Anatol Rapoport, one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, renowned for his pioneering work on game theory. As I sat across from him on a couch in his tidy living room, excitement and sadness washed over me — excitement because I admired his work, sadness because I had to tell him about my own. I opened my briefcase and spread a sheaf of documents, several inches thick, onto his coffee table.

At the time, I was 33 and the senior aide to Church, a Democratic senator from Idaho. A onetime protege of Lyndon Johnson who became a fierce critic of the Vietnam War, he was an honorable, hardworking man who cared deeply about civil liberties. He wasn’t without ambition. But he made the politically risky decision to take on U.S. intelligence agencies out of a real sense of right and wrong.

It had all started the previous December, when the journalist Seymour Hersh published a bombshell in The New York Times showing that the CIA was systematically spying on anti-war protesters. The report sent shockwaves through the nation and led to the founding of three special investigative committees in Washington — one led by Gerald Ford’s White House, another by the House of Representatives and another by Church in the Senate, the most thorough and historically significant. The remit of the panel — officially called the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities — extended from the CIA to 11 other U.S. intelligence organizations, including the FBI, which quickly became one of the committee’s top concerns.

It was clear almost immediately that the FBI, CIA and others had broken the law to spy on Americans. And they hadn’t stopped there — they had gone out of their way to ruin the lives of innocent people. Many victims, like the aged professor sitting in front of me, had no idea what had really caused their suffering.

The FBI was an egregious lawbreaker, despite its official status as the nation’s chief law enforcement agency. J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s director from its creation in 1935 until his death in 1972, had run the FBI as if it were his personal fiefdom. He directed his agents to collect dirt on his friends and enemies alike and fought off all serious attempts at oversight. Even powerful politicians in Washington were afraid to speak against him. Hoover also created what became known as COINTELPRO, shorthand for “the counterintelligence program,” which officially lasted from 1956 to 1971 — though some of its practices linger on to this day. Under its auspices, the bureau unlawfully surveilled mostly Black civil rights leaders and left-wing anti-war activists, as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan. It used agents provocateurs and disinformation to disrupt or destroy the various groups it targeted.

Hoover wanted a society that was mostly middle class, suburban and conservative, with whites in power. His primary fear was the nation’s foremost civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., whom he viewed as a threat to America and perhaps even a communist agent. The bureau tried to blackmail King by secretly tape-recording his extramarital affairs. In 1964, roughly a month before King was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, an FBI agent sent copies of those tapes along with an unsigned letter to King and his wife, threatening to release the recordings unless King killed himself. Instead, standing next to his wife at a press conference in Atlanta, King admitted to and apologized for his infidelity.

“No holds were barred,” admitted William Sullivan, the FBI official in charge of COINTELPRO, when I questioned him under oath in a quiet corner of Logan International Airport in Boston. “We have similar techniques against Soviet agents. These same methods were brought home against any organization we targeted. We did not differentiate.”

I was astounded: How could anyone have gone along with this? “I was so inured and accustomed to any damn thing I was told to do,” Sullivan told me, adding that he kept his resentment to himself. “I was married and trying to buy a house with a big mortgage and raise a family.”

King was hardly the FBI’s only target — there were thousands across the country. As senators on the Church Committee realized the breadth and depth of the scandal, they sent senior staffers like me to visit victims and share declassified copies of their files.

Rapoport, the mathematician, was born in Lozova, then part of the Russian Empire, now a city in eastern Ukraine. His family, all secular Jews, had fled religious persecution and moved to the United States when he was a child. He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He later became a renowned academic, settling into a post at the University of Michigan. It was there, from the FBI’s point of view, that Rapoport had committed his crime: staunchly and publicly opposing America’s war in Vietnam. In response, the bureau had run a clandestine disinformation campaign against him, sending anonymous letters to Michigan lawmakers and university officials, claiming he was a communist. When he learned of the letters, Rapoport had no idea who was behind them, but the reaction was swift. Lawmakers and university officials hounded Rapoport until he left his job. Personally wounded but eager to keep his academic reputation intact, he moved to Canada, where he continued his research at the University of Toronto.

As I explained to Rapoport what the FBI had done, he slowly read the documents, turning one page after another without saying a word. Then he quietly wept.

The Church Committee findings led to myriad reforms across the U.S. intelligence community — among them, more and better congressional oversight of the FBI and a new law to prevent it from spying on Americans without a warrant. It was a watershed moment for congressional power and public transparency. At the time, few outside the halls of Langley, Quantico and other closely guarded intelligence headquarters really understood the subterranean world of the U.S. intelligence services. One of the few independent scholars on the subject at the time was my friend Harry Howe Ransom at Vanderbilt University. “I went after this with a pick and shovel,” he once told me, “and you guys went in with a bulldozer.”

He was right, and it inspired my career after I returned to academia in the early 1980s, accepting a post at the University of Georgia. I wrote a book about my experience on the committee and continued my research, traveling to Washington regularly. I even returned to government in 1995 to serve as the assistant to the chair of the Aspin-Brown Commission, which published recommendations on additional reforms for the intelligence agencies.

I wish I could say the Church Committee marked the end of the FBI’s problems, but the bureau has since been plagued by a number of high-profile missteps. There was the excessive force used in a 1992 standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which an FBI sniper killed the wife of a white supremacist while she held her infant daughter. Then there was the raid by the FBI and other agencies the next year on a religious sect in Waco, Texas, where a fire broke out and dozens of sect members died, including children. Both events inspired a surge in right-wing militancy, as well as the deadly terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Six years later, 9/11 transformed the FBI, which began to operate more like a domestic intelligence agency. The bureau had long been involved in intelligence matters, stopping foreign adversaries from spying on the country. But as counterterrorism became its all-consuming focus, the FBI too often overstepped its bounds to surveil American Muslims without proper grounds, and made aggressive use of informants as agents provocateurs to incite terrorist plots that otherwise may never have occurred. Too few lawmakers spoke out, especially Republicans, who were in general the most vocal advocates of the “war on terror.”

Then came Jan. 6, 2021. On the left, critics accused the FBI — it’s not yet clear how fairly — of ignoring warnings about the coming assault on the Capitol. Evidence uncovered by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks, meanwhile, suggests that a sizable number of FBI agents were sympathetic to the rioters.

Yet these are not the kinds of problems that Republicans have in mind when they critique the bureau. In fact, they have painted the FBI’s investigation into what happened on Jan. 6 — and its attempts to combat right-wing extremism more generally — as political persecution. Today, many on the right assert that the FBI is not only biased against them but also abusing its power to attack Trump, his inner circle and almost anyone with similar political views.

The Center for Renewing America report encapsulates many of these fears, claiming that the FBI has violated the rights of ordinary conservatives in its investigations of Jan. 6; that it has used counterterrorism methods to monitor parents who oppose their school boards for, among other things, allowing the teaching of critical race theory; and even that the FBI routinely apprehends “Make America Great Again” (“MAGA”) hats during raids as evidence of supposed wrongdoing.

You can find these sentiments echoed among powerful party figures such as Rep. Jordan. The Ohio congressman claims the FBI has purged employees with conservative viewpoints and manipulated cases to make it look like right-wing extremism is increasing, among other charges. In November, he and other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee released a report alleging “rampant corruption” and a “systemic culture of unaccountability” at the FBI. The bureau has denied these claims.

These are serious allegations, and Congress should take them seriously. The nation’s premier law enforcement agency relies on the public’s trust, and if it loses that trust, for whatever reason, it is unable to do its job effectively. If the bureau were indeed engaging in a new iteration of COINTELPRO, this time targeting an entire political party or point of view, it would be a truly terrible scandal. To find out if such a scandal were afoot, we would need a genuinely bipartisan investigation from courageous lawmakers with credibility.

Jordan and other GOP House leaders, however, have no such credibility or spirit of bipartisanship. Quite the contrary: They have bolstered Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Only two House Republicans — Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — joined Democrats to participate in the congressional investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, and both have been driven out of office by the so-called MAGA crowd. Many Republicans have refused to cooperate with the probe; others have gone so far as to attempt to obstruct it and whitewash history.

Unlike Church, who charged forward against Hoover’s FBI and other powerful intelligence agencies alongside Republican counterparts such as Barry Goldwater, GOP lawmakers like Jordan and Kevin McCarthy are too partisan and timid to stand up and do what’s right. They are also too afraid of Trump.

Republican lawmakers tend to make the loudest noise about how the bureau has targeted their leaders, namely Trump. The former president is currently wrapped up in two separate probes. The first is scrutinizing his conduct in the lead-up to Jan. 6, while the second is looking into the classified documents allegedly found at Mar-a-Lago during the controversial FBI raid — how they got there and whether Trump has obstructed the government’s efforts to get them back.

Trump calls both investigations “witch hunts,” and, with few exceptions, the rest of his party seems to agree. That has been their response to nearly every Trump scandal since he became the president-elect in November 2016. It’s also why the FBI and the Department of Justice will need to be as transparent as possible with the American people.

There is still much we don’t know about each investigation. What we do know indicates they are legitimate and critically important. For more than a year, the National Archives repeatedly asked Trump to return the documents in question. Some reportedly include highly sensitive information about Iran’s missile program and U.S. espionage operations against China. Not only did Trump and his attorneys appear to put forward false explanations, but they also refused to comply even in the face of a grand jury subpoena. What was the FBI supposed to do? If anything, the bureau and the Department of Justice have gone out of their way to avoid the appearance of political impropriety. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to oversee the documents probe.

The special counsel is also overseeing the Jan. 6-related investigation into Trump. While we know less about that one, it also appears necessary. The public hearings from the Jan. 6 committee have produced stunning allegations about Trump’s attempts to subvert the democratic process. It is the FBI’s job to investigate such serious matters. Not doing so for fear of political repercussions would be a scandal in its own right.

Is a Church-style committee warranted in either of these cases? The answer is no. Unless real evidence of widespread FBI misconduct or political bias emerges, the special counsel’s report on these probes — assuming the Department of Justice makes it public — should be sufficient to provide Americans a transparent look at them.

In claiming that these investigations of Trump are political, in fact, Republicans seem to be attempting to create a world in which the FBI would be punished not only for its past, justifiable efforts to probe the ex-president and his cohorts but also for its future, in which it would not be able to do so again. This is corrupt and self-serving.

The Center for Renewing America is run by Russell Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Its director of litigation is Jeffrey Clark, the former acting attorney general, who, like other Trump allies, appears to be in the crosshairs of the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 probe. Is it any surprise, then, that the Republicans want to investigate the investigators? This clearly runs counter to the spirit of the Church Committee, which set aside party politics and any other influences that tried to interfere with the law.

With Republicans back in control of the House, I expect them to move quickly against their perceived enemies. First on the list will be FBI Director Christopher Wray. He was a Trump appointee in 2017 and is seen by Republicans as a traitor. The GOP will have the power to pressure the White House to fire Wray or even push for the impeachment of Attorney General Garland.

Jordan, as head of the House Judiciary Committee, could indeed use his position to formally probe the bureau, since the committee already oversees the FBI’s budget and many of its operations. Alternatively, he could join forces with his colleagues on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, another panel with jurisdiction over the FBI, to further ratchet up the pressure.

The end goal may be to yank the FBI out of the Department of Justice and repurpose it as part of the Department of Homeland Security. This might allow Republicans to hive off any FBI units that would investigate Trump or anyone else they want to protect. Some Republicans have also suggested replacing the FBI with a new agency or at least splitting it up into two separate entities: one for law enforcement and another for domestic intelligence. Both duties currently reside within the bureau. The proposal to split the bureau in this way has also been made by well-meaning critics. But we have good reason to question the motivations behind these Republican proposals. As Clark, the former Trump official, wrote on the Center for Renewing America’s website, the goal is “to turn the FBI upside down.”

Transforming the FBI would have real-world consequences that go beyond politics. Any serious discussion of the FBI’s future must also consider the importance of its mission. The threats the United States faces are real, and the FBI plays an important role in stopping them. Terrorists, cybercriminals, foreign intelligence operatives, mass shooters and armed robbers aren’t going away any time soon. The country clearly needs a healthy, effective FBI that retains the public’s trust.

This is why, as the Church Committee showed decades ago, congressional oversight remains key. It just needs to be the honest kind. In 2015, on the committee’s 40th anniversary, I joined 16 of its former staff members to offer a list of recommendations to further reform the FBI and other intelligence agencies. On the most basic level, what we wanted was better accountability, more funding for staff and less secrecy. Unfortunately, both parties ignored our pleas.

Now, as it faces an onslaught of attacks, the Biden administration and the Democrats would be wise to revisit those recommendations and work with the handful of Republicans who might still be willing to engage in an objective, bipartisan and serious assessment of the FBI. That is, in effect, what we did in the 1970s. As I look at the divisive, partisan political climate of today, however, those days seem all too far away.

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