The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government—the so-called New Church Committee—is being cast by Democrats and most of the mainstream media as a batshit-crazy witch hunt: “the tinfoil hat” committee. The good news, however, is that the Democrats are not boycotting the committee. Nor can any of them be kicked off of it by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the way Nancy Pelosi removed some Republicans from the Jan. 6 investigation. This rule change was forced upon McCarthy by MAGA lawmakers, the so-called Freedom Caucus, who extracted concessions from him in 15 rounds of voting on his confirmation. Indeed, even the creation of the Subcommittee on Weaponization was a concession to these holdouts.
Democrats on the subcommittee, and progressives more broadly, should press to make the committee live up to, and even surpass, its namesake. The original eponymous Church Committee, for its chair Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, documented widespread infiltration and sabotage of left-wing social movements by the FBI and other government agencies, including the CIA, which illegally targeted the domestic left in Operations Chaos, Merrimack, and Resistance.
The Church Committee was triggered by the theft and release of a huge cache of FBI documents detailing its counterintelligence program (known by the clunky acronym COINTELPRO). Beginning in 1956, this FBI campaign of surveillance, infiltration, disruption, and entrapment targeted, first, the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, then the civil-rights movement, and then the New Left and left-leaning trade unions like the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.
Although most on the left have greeted the New Church Committee with hostility, recent news might change that. Days before the subcommittee’s first hearing, news broke that the FBI had targeted the Denver-area Black Lives Matter movement. A podcast called the Alphabet Boys obtained audio and video recordings of an FBI informant and provocateur who infiltrated the group during the nationwide unrest following George Floyd’s murder.
In 2020, Mickey Windecker showed up in Denver smoking cigars, driving a hearse loaded with guns, and talking ultra-radical claptrap about having served with Marxist Kurdish guerrillas in Syria. Despite his preposterous persona, Windecker managed to entrap one BLM activist into pleading guilty on weapons charges. He also worked to inflame peaceful demonstrations by “encouraging people to break windows and leading marches directly into police traps.”
Windecker and his FBI handlers even attempted to recruit BLM activists into an assassination plot against Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. Ultimately unsuccessful, this scheme shows the outrageous lengths to which the bureau will go to manufacture threats. It is reasonable to assume this was not the only recent FBI infiltration of a left political movement.
The bureau has a history of targeting figures and groups it sees as real political threats: Dr. Martin Luther King, for example. But it also has a well-documented history of fabricating political enemies where none exist. Throughout its history, the FBI has used both real and concocted threats to expand its budgets, powers, and prerogatives.
During the War on Terror, it subjected American Muslims to a multibillion-dollar campaign of infiltration and frameups. A 2013 study found that more than half of all post-9/11 terrorism prosecutions involved FBI entrapment using paid informants who bamboozled often young, socially marginalized Muslims into fake plots. Some of these traps even targeted people with documented intellectual disabilities. In 2017, a 16-year veteran of the bureau named Terry Albury exposed these abuses and was rewarded for his honesty with four years in federal prison.
Despite the FBI’s history of wanton abuse, many of my left-wing friends refuse to consider evidence of federal infiltration of MAGA-aligned organizations. My friends, alas, engage in historically inaccurate deductive reasoning: The FBI is right-wing, they assume; therefore, it would never move against right-wing groups. But it has, and it does.
The historical record is clear. While the vast majority of the FBI’s subversion campaigns have targeted the left, the FBI has also moved against apolitical and culturally conservative groups; indeed, many persecuted Muslim-American organizations fit that description. It has also spied on and harassed and built compromising dossiers on mainstream politicians. And despite having many agents with right-wing politics, the bureau has kept tabs on, infiltrated, and occasionally repressed neo-Nazis and the Klan.
David Cunningham, a scholar of the security state, has argued that the FBI’s approach during the 1960s focused on “controlling the Klan’s activities,” whereas the bureau’s campaign against left radicals focused on “eliminating the New Left’s ability to act and spread its ideas.”
William Keller, author of The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover: Rise and Fall of a Domestic Intelligence State, argues that the FBI’s few counterintelligence programs against various factions of the Ku Klux Klan during the early 1960s—while provoked by real Klan violence, done at the urging of liberals, and never particularly aggressive —were then used by the bureau to build liberal consent for bigger budgets, as well as more insularity, secrecy, and autonomy.
Keller argues it was precisely the bureaucratic gains made fighting the Klan that a few years later allowed the FBI such tremendous latitude in its extremely violent repression of the Black Panther Party and other New Left groups. As Keller puts it,
liberals delegated extensive, concentrated, and unknown powers to the agency of internal security, hiding them away within the FBI as if they did not exist. This is the dark side of the moon where liberalism confronts an authoritarian adversary using authoritarian tactics as a means of dispatching it. In so doing, liberals risked the creation of a second threat, a state within the state, which would not be bound by the constraints of the constitutional order.
By the 1980s, the New Left had been largely repressed and co-opted out of existence. But the FBI did not end its secret domestic counterinsurgency. When labor organizations, nonprofits, and church groups started organizing to stop the US proxy wars in Central America the bureau started monitoring, infiltrating, and disrupting them.
The 1990s saw the FBI increase its focus on the far right. And this campaign, perhaps paradoxically, caused the far right to grow. Federal law enforcement’s deadly overreach at Ruby Ridge and then at Waco, against the weird but apolitical Branch Davidian cult, spurred on growth of the militia movement that culminated in Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Federal Building at Oklahoma City.
Six years later came 9/11 and the USA Patriot Act, which swept away the few remaining reforms imposed on federal intelligence agencies after the Church Committee. Flush with even more funding, power, and secrecy, the FBI built a gigantic stable of paid informants and freelance snitches. Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory, has described it as “the largest network of spies ever to exist in the United States.”
The Church Committee found that the FBI retained about 1,500 informants. By 2015 FBI records revealed in court cases showed that number had reached 15,000. Meanwhile various whistleblowers and other sources suggest there may be three times as many informal part-time informants working off the books.
With the election of Donald Trump, it seems, the FBI started targeting some of his far-right base. And in 2020, the Department of Homeland Security declared homegrown right-wing terrorism its No. 1 domestic threat. A glaring example of FBI entrapment against the right is the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The would-be kidnapers—a group of broke, socially outcast fantasists calling themselves “the Wolverines”—were infiltrated by at least a dozen FBI confidential informants working closely with a bevy of agents who kept the plotters under nearly constant surveillance. The FBI, far from trying to stop the plot, seems to have encouraged it.
Similar can be said for the Jan. 6 riot. Both the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys—two groups crucial in planning Jan. 6—were heavily infiltrated by the FBI. Even the Proud Boys’ national chairman, Enrique Tarrio, had worked as an undercover FBI informant on numerous cases prior to joining the far-right group. By his own admission to Reuters, Tarrio routinely “let police departments know of the Proud Boys’ plans.”
A Capitol Police intelligence unit reported up the chain of command two weeks prior to the riot that some of the protesters planned to be armed, were bent on violence, and intended to target Congress. Despite all this intelligence, the Capitol was left largely unprotected. As the House Jan. 6 committee’s chief investigative counsel, Tim Heaphy, explained in an exclusive NBC interview, there was no intelligence failure, but rather a failure to act on intelligence. Suspiciously, this conclusion was not presented in the committee’s televised hearings nor final report.
Characters like Ray Epps—the ex-military rancher filmed urging protestors to invade the Capitol, who also bragged in a text message to his nephew that he “orchestrated” the invasion—have been largely ignored by the FBI. Just after the riot Epps landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. But then his name was quickly dropped and he was never even interviewed by the FBI even as the bureau has hounded plenty of Jan. 6 attendees who never got past the edge of the crowd.
Whether we regard the riot as a dangerous conspiracy to overturn the election or a justified protest that got out of control, we should take into account mounting circumstantial evidence of FBI infiltration, incitement, and entrapment. Yet my radical and progressive comrades more often wave away the growing list of peculiar and difficult facts with vague suppositions about bumbling bureaucratic screw-ups.
A different conclusion strikes me as inescapable: The American security state is totally out of control. It makes war on anyone—left, right, center, apolitical, religious—whom it regards as threatening. Even parents who spoke out against Covid closures and “woke” curricula at school-board meetings have been investigated.
Looming at the edges of this story is the specter of “controlled opposition”: that is, oppositional social movements that are so thoroughly penetrated by the intelligence services as to be controlled by the state. During the exposés of the 1970s that led to the formation of the Church Committee, at least one FBI informant described controlled opposition as an explicit bureau goal. In 1975, Joseph A. Burton told The New York Times in a series of interviews about his work as an FBI informant penetrating and disrupting Marxist-Leninist groups in the United States and Canada. Instructed by the bureau to “do anything to prevent Marxist-Leninists from coming together,” Burton even created a Maoist organization called Red Star Cadre.
Burton also infiltrated a Tampa local of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, because it was trying to unionize garbage collectors. He did the same to the United Electrical workers union that was organizing at a Westinghouse plant. He sabotaged Vietnam Veterans Against the War, organized various protests, helped distribute left-wing literature, liaised with radical groups in Canada, and much more. As Burton explained, the bureau’s aim was to control the radical left: The hope was “that we could control demonstrations, make them move when we wanted them to, make them shout what we wanted them to.”
Unaccountable domestic intelligence forces threaten more than “controlled opposition.” The possibility of “managed democracy”—to use an epithet typically flung at states like Russia—isn’t unthinkable. How far away are we from the hollowing out of our most important political processes, like elections, because they are secretly manipulated by the domestic intelligence services?
If this sounds impossible or far-fetched, consider the Hunter Biden laptop saga. As someone who has been pleasantly surprised by some of President Biden’s policies, it pains me to say this, but the laptop clearly documents very serious corruption. Worse yet, the FBI put its thumb on the scale during the presidential election of 2020, first by refusing to release the contents of the laptop, then by encouraging censorship of the laptop story when it told social media providers the story was Russian “disinformation.”
The domestic intelligence state needs to be reformed and radically pruned, if not totally dismantled and replaced with accountable institutions. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform these rogue entities. That will only happen if there is cooperation from the left. The House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government plans to propose legislation. Without left-wing participation and pressure, it is hard to imagine that the Republicans on the committee will really move against the FBI on their own.
After all, this is not just a matter of ideology. Since the earliest days of J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership, the bureau has made a point of developing compromising dossiers on members of the political class. The chair of the subcommittee, Jim Jordan, is alleged to have turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of teenage athletes back when he was a high school wrestling coach. No doubt Jordan worries how that part of his past might be, shall we say, weaponized against him during a future election.
Leftists are badly deluded if they think an unaccountable secret-police state will attack only neo-Nazis. The stronger the security state, the more enemies it will find or manufacture, and the more pressure it will apply. Under such conditions, any left that can wage a meaningful class struggle will be crushed.
If leftists, particularly Marxists and socialists, have an interest in democratic political agitation unmolested by secret police, they should not dismiss the undeniable fact of the FBI using counterintelligence tactics against far-right groups and MAGA supporters. A principled and pragmatic left position is simply this: COINTELPRO-style entrapment and provocation are wrong when done to the left, and wrong when done to the right.