By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
Somewhere between the first and second times I heard someone say “weaponize,” this term and its derivatives—“weaponizing,” “weaponization,” and so on—began to repel me. It was the crudity of it, or the way it served as an accusatory dismissal, like “conspiracy theory.” Assert that someone has weaponized a given point of view or set of facts, or call someone a conspiracy theorist, and there is no further need to take that person seriously. Discourse, debate, argument: These are all foreclosed. Liberals, in their illiberalism, have found this kind of rhetoric especially useful these past half-dozen years.
And now we have the institutionalization of this odious term as the reconvened, Republican-controlled House of Representatives announces plans to form a Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Government. To hear the liberals tell it, this is going to be the weaponization of “weaponization.” The House should have ignored the faddish language and dedicated its latest committee to “Abuses of Government.” This would have given it several lifetimes’ worth of work and avoided the liberals weaponization of the term “weaponization.”
What do we think of this new subcommittee? Its advocates—at writing there are to be, to date, nine Republicans and six Democrats, none yet named—liken it to the Senate’s Church Committee, which investigated the Central Intelligence Agency’s profligate abuses in 1975–76 and produced a six-volume report as it wrapped up. The new subcommittee’s opponents—the Democrats who refuse to join it and the liberals who stand to be investigated for their various weaponizations—say it will more closely resemble the McCarthy era’s infamous HUAC, the House Un–American Activities Committee. Which is closest to the truth? How might this project turn out?
Let us begin at the beginning.
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Abuses of government office are nothing new in the circus of American politics. But it is open-and-shut the case that liberals and mainstream Democrats indulged in extravagant, maybe unprecedented abuses of government institutions in response to Donald Trump’s rise in national politics and his victory over Hillary Clinton—an abuser of power if ever there was one—in the November 2016 elections. There is no question that conservatives of various stripes were the objects of this abuse. Equally, there is no question they were not alone in this.
Many commentators and reporters have written, notably but not only in this publication and Consortium News, of the frightening institutional corruption that ensued after the Democratic Party alleged, in the summer before that election, that Russia and the Trump campaign were collaborating with a shared interest in depriving Clinton of the presidency. In the course of what we now call Russiagate, the Obama White House, the Obama Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, domestic law-enforcement agencies, the intelligence apparatus, and on occasion the Pentagon all—I’ll go with the flow here—weaponized their institutional powers in the cause of what was and remains manifest as liberal authoritarianism.
The above paragraph leaves me open to the charge that I am a conspiracy theorist. I take no interest whatsoever in such juvenile, “weaponized” styles of discourse.
As Donald Trump unwrapped his foreign policy objectives—ending wars of adventure, reducing the troop presence abroad, folding NATO’s tent, a new détente with Russia—I called him a weird messenger bearing some good ideas. Whatever else I may have thought of Trump—a matter of no importance—these proposals on the foreign side were vastly preferable to the warmongering Clinton’s, whose thinking begins and ends with the righteousness of the American imperium.
It is roughly the same with the new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Government. It will be packed with Republicans residing at the right-hand side of the party’s garden; its chairman, Jim Jordan, is said to be among Trump’s close allies. But they have one thing right straight out of the box: The corruptions and coverups of the Russiagate years, conducted and sustained with the connivance of mainstream media, require exposure and redress if our republic is ever to get itself out of the sinkhole into which it fell during those years.
Democrats object that the subcommittee’s chartered jurisdiction is too open-ended and its investigative powers will sprawl unduly. What a dodge. This reflects the Democrats’ never-ending determination to pretend there is nothing to investigate in the years of Russiagate and the anti-Trump hysteria that accompanied it. All that is mere conspiracy theory, we read. And that is nonsense. What happened in response to Trump’s surge to political prominence sprawled. A great deal of it remains hidden from public view —most notably the decisively discredited lie that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails and the outright fabrication of Trump’s political links to the Kremlin. These cynical propaganda ops, and a great many more of them, warrant investigations of wide range.
The mainstream press wants us to understand this committee as a straight-line partisan project focused on abuses of conservative interests. Jordan has said in speeches on the House floor that he is indeed concerned with the alleged targeting of conservatives and their causes. I quite hope the subcommittee’s purchase will be much broader than this, as those residing elsewhere in the political garden took just as much abuse at the hands of mainstream Democrats and the media serving them. I have read no statements from Jordan or any potential member of the committee suggesting this is all about revenge and nothing more. If Jordan and his people are wise, it won’t be.
The New York Times describes the committee’s purview this way:
The subcommittee will have open-ended jurisdiction to scrutinize any issue related to civil liberties or to examine how any agency of the federal government has collected, analyzed and used information about Americans. It also has authority to obtain some of the most sensitive secrets in the government, including information about covert actions that is usually the exclusive territory of the congressional intelligence committees.
There is plenty of room in this for Jordan’s committee to do good work. Whether it will remains an open question. Democrats charge that the committee will run a witch hunt in the manner of those gruesome HUAC hearings of which one can still see footage. It may descend to this, if Jordan turns out to be as stupid as many say he is, but Democrats have no right to say this until it becomes one. Flinging around such phrases as “witch hunt” amounts to a kind of inverted weaponization: We’re going to make sure the public thinks your investigations of weaponization are nothing more than the weaponization of a House subcommittee.
What a morass of irresponsible rhetoric we have tumbled into since the Russiagate days. And Democrats, to conclude this point, have a lot of nerve making reference to the McCarthy years, given all the canceling, censoring, witch-hunting, and reputation-destroying in which they indulged as their latent authoritarianism rose to the surface. Investigate this, Congressman Jordan.
The subcommittee’s advocates, to turn the matter another way, have taken to calling it Church Committee II. I greatly hope it amounts to more than that. Several people, including my deservedly respected colleague John Kiriakou, have responded in defense of the Church Committee’s place in history. I differ. I count the Church Committee a nearly abject failure born of gutlessness, concern for political reputation, and wholly inappropriate negotiations with the Central Intelligence Agency as to what the committee would investigate and reveal.
Some history seems right here.
Formed in early 1975, the Church Committee, so named for its head, Idaho Democrat Frank Church, was one of several committees assigned to investigate the CIA’s numerous illegal activities—the assassinations, the coups, the subversion ops, and, far from least, its penetration of the American press and broadcasters. This was to be the first concerted attempt to exert political control over an agency that had long since, as we say now, “gone rogue.” In this, Church and his investigative staff held the making of history in their hands. They could have deprived those asserting America’s global hegemony one of their most essential institutions, and they would have decisively cut the media’s ties with it.
As things turned out, the Church Committee’s failure is wherein the history resides. In the breach, those directing the undertaking elected to obfuscate the obfuscators.
Ties of all sorts to journalists of all sorts were among the programs the CIA was most vigorously determined to keep in the shadows. The agency’s elisions, untruths, and arms-folded refusals to cooperate with Senate investigators must count as a model for all aspiring stonewallers. In due course, the Church Committee found itself drawn into prolonged negotiations it never should have entered upon with William Colby, then the CIA’s director, and other senior agency officials.
There were other indicators that failure was on the way. The committee had spent too much time on assassination plots and agency exotica to give the question of press complicity the attention it warranted. Church, who for a time nursed dreams of a run for the presidency, did not want his name on an investigation that would make a patriotic agency protecting national security look as objectionable as it was.
The final “findings” found little to find. No one from the press was called to testify—no correspondents, no editors, none of those at the top of the major dailies or the broadcasters. A year after the committee released its six volumes, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame elicited in eight words all that needed saying about the 16 months of Capitol Hill drama. Faced with the prospect of forcing the CIA to sever all covert ties with the press, a senator Bernstein did not name remarked, “We just weren’t ready to take that step.”
Gary Hart, the former senator and the youngest member of the Church Committee, inadvertently confirmed these judgments in a curious defense of the Church Committee’s reputation published last week in The New York Times.
We all understood, including me, the youngest member, that attacks on federal law enforcement and national security would not go down well among our constituents…
Despite the concern of conservatives at the time, to my knowledge, no significant clandestine activity was compromised and no classified information leaked as a result of these reforms in the almost half-century since they were adopted.
Parse this carefully. In the cotton-wool language of the liberals, Hart acknowledges that politics ruled on the Church Committee and that the intent was never to disrupt the CIA’s gross misconduct other than cosmetically. Among the agency’s significant clandestine activities, as noted, was its compromise of American media, beginning with its publishers and chief executives and running on down into newsrooms.
The Church Committee left various marks on the record. Some relationships between Langley and the media were broken off as the committee shut up shop. Things were not so openly and incautiously corrupt as they had been pre–Church. It was in the decade following the committee’s hearings that the CIA began to shift the coup function and various subversion operations to front organizations such as the now-infamous National Endowment for Democracy.
That don’t count as no cleanup in my book. Look out the window. The agency is less subject to civilian control or political oversight than it was prior to the “Year of Intelligence,” as 1975 was called even before it was over. As to its corruption of the press, the CIA and other intel agencies no longer even bother buying journalists or planting agents in newsrooms: The networks now openly employ former intel officials as “analysts.” The CIA’s relations with the major dailies is less obvious, but the thought that the agency has no presence among print journalists is simply magical thinking.
I find the fuss about the Church Committee’s supposed high purpose ungrounded, in short. I cannot profess great confidence that the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Government will display much more in the way of integrity and disinterest. Maybe the best we can hope for is that some of the sludge the Democrats shoved us all into during the Russiagate years will come to light. And maybe that will have to do for now.