A modern-day GOP 'Church' panel? Not a chance, say those who know the late Idaho Senator's work best.
In recent weeks, House Republicans have established a new panel to investigate alleged abuses of federal authority. Although formally labeled the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, some members are dubbing it the modern-day "Church Committee," a reference to the historic 1975 committee chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church that investigated intelligence abuses in the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency.
For Monica Church, director of the Frank Church Institute, this effort isn’t just a personal affront, it has little to no relationship with the facts.
“To compare the Church Committee to what is currently happening in D.C., I think is unwarranted. I think it's inaccurate,” said Church. “And I also think that we need to really delve into why this committee was created in the first place.”
Monica Church and Dr. Stephanie Martin, holder of the Frank and Bethine Chair on Public Affairs at Boise State University, visited with Morning Edition George Prentice to set more than a few facts straight.
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. I'm George Prentice the news. The drama on Capitol Hill is tangible. Blink and you'll miss something. But there is no missing one of the House GOP majority's latest moves. And that is a new House subcommittee to investigate what they call “the weaponization of the federal government.” But they've got some pretty particular targets in those investigations. That said, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans also insist on comparing their subcommittee to the Church Committee, the highly regarded bipartisan inquiry of the 1970s. And even Fox News is calling this new GOP subcommittee “the Church Committee.” So, our next guests, we’re thinking, have something to say about this. Monica Church is the executive director of the Frank Church Institute. Dr. Stephanie Martin is the current holder of the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. Good morning to you both.
DR. STEPHANIE MARTIN: Good morning.
MONICA CHURCH: Good morning, George. Thanks for having us.
PRENTICE: Well, Monica Church, executive director of the Frank Church Institute… and it's important that I also say, granddaughter of Frank Church. So, can I assume that you've got professional and personal feelings about this?
CHURCH: Well, thank you. Yes, I do have both of those. And I would say professionally, I'll leave the academics to Dr. Martin. But you're right. As far as a legacy, the Church Committee's work represented a real watershed moment in American history. And co-opting the name, I think, does not only harm to Senator Frank Church's legacy, but also to the legacy of what makes the American democratic system so valuable. What came out of the Church Committee were a few things: First and foremost, the permanent Senate and House Committee on Intelligence that oversee the entire U.S. intelligence community. And then, of course, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And these came out of a goal. There was a goal to the committee that I think we're missing in this new subcommittee that's been created in the House of Representatives today. The goal of the Church Committee and of Senator Church was to fundamentally reform the way the intelligence community operated, and that was to assure that the constitutional liberties of all Americans were being upheld. And so, I worry that this committee doesn't have a specific goal that's set out, nor is its apparent goal the constitutional liberties of all Americans. So, thank you for asking that. Yes, I do worry a little bit about the name being co-opted in this way.
PRENTICE: Dr. Sam Martin, when I first heard this, I thought, “Well, this can't hold water,” because, well, I'm older. Indeed, I was a journalist. I covered politics in the 1970s. I have very vivid memories of the Church Committee. But when I put something out on social media a few days ago, more than a few people responded that they didn't know too much about the Church Committee. So, my first thought was that we better know our history because somebody may take it from you. Somebody might use it for their own devices.
MARTIN: You know, I went all the way to the end of school and earned a PhD, but it was in high school that one of my best history teachers instilled in me the notion that history is not facts. History is the interpretation of the record of the past. And I'm going to say that a second time: history is the interpretation of the record of the past. And that's why what my colleague Ms. Church was talking about is so important, that we need to make sure that we're interpreting the past in a way that has fidelity. What the Church Committee was….it actually was out of extraordinary investigative journalism. And so, the beginning of the Church Committee was not even Frank Church. The beginning of the Church Committee was an article that came out in The New York Times by a journalist named Seymour Hersh that exposed a program of domestic surveillance, and that journalism was taken seriously by Congress on behalf of the American citizens. And that is an entirely different situation than is happening now on Capitol Hill, which really feels like some lawmakers engaged in a form of retribution. And in fact, one of my favorite things is… I've been learning about this… was that Senator Church was criticized by members of the Democratic Party itself for being too willing to compromise and work with members of the GOP, for being too willing to listen to their concerns and their questions and what they thought was going on. And so that kind of reaching across the aisle… that kind of bipartisanship…that is really important to recognize. And what they hoped would be a 12-month investigation, actually went on for 16 months, and they did most of it in secret. It wasn't for the cameras. It was for the people.
CHURCH: To compare the Church Committee to what is currently happening in D.C., I think is unwarranted. I think it's inaccurate. And I also think that we need to really delve into why this committee was created in the first place. Something to note, I think, for all of the listeners is that this new Church Committee… or Church Committee 2.0 or all of the different names that they've used for it… the notion that this is somehow novel and that there's some select subcommittee is directly linked to things that have happened since the 2020 election. I think it's just not accurate. We've had people talk about a new “Church Commission” since 2018. Specifically, Steve Bannon talked about the need for American intelligence institutes to be investigated back in 2018. So, there needs to be a lot more understanding of not only the history of this term, the new Church Committee… but of course, of the Church Committee itself.
MARTIN: And there's so much that I could say as a professor and as a person who thinks about politics and political history and the public sphere. You know, if I if I go back to your first question that you that you posed to Ms. Chiurch about the meaning of her name being associated with this, one of the things that I study is public memory and public rhetoric and we have to think about the fact that the name of the Senator is Church. And what is the valence of that word? There is something that really works to the favor of anyone in their efforts to use that name. You know, it is serendipitous, a lucky coincidence for the House Republicans in this case that they can try to pull the record of the past to a name like that. In part, I think that that is why this committee continuously circles back into the public memory, despite the fact, George, that many people will have forgotten what it is. t. Many people have forgotten exactly what went down in the 1970s. And then when you have this name Church, that gets pulled into the public valence, that carries with it a certain kind of sacredness, a certain kind of public good just by virtue of the word. Then people go… and they look at what happened and they see that this investigation found out that the government did all kinds of things that the government shouldn't have done. And that is a result of this investigation, lawmakers worked to the good of the American people and they did the things like put into place permanent committees in Congress to oversee the intelligence agencies. They put a limit on the term of the FBI director so that no one like Hoover could ever exist again. They did all these good things. There is just this way that it all comes together in serendipity to create a thing that just works. And so, what I just always want to say as a person who teaches in this realm and thinks in this realm is that we often forget in this era of what we call polarization and political identity…and we’re Democrats or were Republicans… we often forget that. The point is not that our side should win. The point is that we, the people are the government. We the people are the ones who are supposed to lead. And so, we need to make sure that we hold our history, our traditions, our mistakes in good stead in order that we don't make those mistakes again. And that we make sure that even if it's our party that is doing things that misappropriate the past…you know, it's the playoffs this weekend, it’s football going on We throw a flag on the field and we say, “No, that's a 15 yard penalty. You need to tell the truth.”
PRENTICE: Have you considered, or are you considering a formal communication from the Institute in regard to this matter?
MARTIN: I will say something about that, George. The Frank Church Institute - one of its most essential functions is to guard the legacy and the history of Senator Frank Church. Senator Church is an Idaho institution to this day, and there are still people in the state who count among their greatest privileges to have known him or have worked for him. Boise State prides itself in having hiss papers. So, while the institute doesn't yet see itself as having a formal role in responding to this, we absolutely see ourselves as having a role in trying to push back against what feels like a deliberate misinformation campaign and a besmirching of an Idaho jewel. And it is difficult for every single person affiliated with the institute, and I daresay for very many Idahoans, to not take this personally. We definitely are losing sleep over what is happening because history matters to us, and truth matters to us very much.
PRENTICE: Dr. Stephanie Martin is current holder of the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University. Monica Church, executive director of the Frank Church Institute. Thank you for what you do every day and for this particular morning, thanks for giving us some time.
CHURCH: Thank you, George.
MARTIN: Thanks, George.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
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