Gary Hart on COINTELPRO Tactics, New "Church Committee" | Westword

Gary Hart: Last Surviving Church Committee Member Back in Spotlight Over FBI Informants

"You tend to question everything."
Former senator Gary Hart  is the last surviving member of the original, and bipartisan, Church Committee.
Former senator Gary Hart is the last surviving member of the original, and bipartisan, Church Committee. Getty Images
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With the recent revelations that the FBI paid an informant who inserted himself into Denver racial justice protests in 2020 and encouraged protesters to commit crimes, COINTELPRO is back in the spotlight. So is the Church Committee, the group of senators who investigated that FBI program, now that Representative Jim Jordan has compared it to his own committee looking into how President Joe Biden treats Republicans.

The FBI's Counterintelligence Program — COINTELPRO — ran from 1956 to 1971 and targeted advocacy groups associated with political and social movements that the FBI viewed as a threat to American stability. The goal was to discredit and ultimately bring about the demise of these groups, including the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.

But as the public gained more knowledge about the FBI's tactics and the abuses of other intelligence agencies, the U.S. Congress decided to act.

In 1975, a group of U.S. senators came together to form the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, which became known as the Church Committee, a reference to the group's chair, Frank Church, a senator from Idaho.

Only one surviving member of that bipartisan committee is left: Gary Hart, the U.S. senator for Colorado from 1975 to 1987 and a one-time frontrunner to become the Democratic presidential nominee.
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Gary Hart was elected to the Senate in 1975.
U.S. Senate

"We were impaneled to look into excesses by various administrations and government intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA and FBI, but others as well," says Hart, who notes that the committee had to look into law violations and also violations of stated U.S. principles in international affairs. "It was quite a sweeping challenge, which we had about fifteen months to respond to and address. It was very time-intensive and covered an awful lot of different projects, including the [plotted] assassination of foreign leaders and the overthrow of foreign governments."

The most recent revelation about apparent FBI excesses — that the organization used an informant to target First Amendment-protected activities in Denver during the George Floyd protests in 2020 — came with the release of season one of Alphabet Boys, a podcast reported and narrated by journalist Trevor Aaronson. The podcast, which was the subject of a recent Westword story, focuses on that informant, Michael "Mickey" Windecker, as he worked to build criminal cases for the federal government by instigating protesters into coming up with criminal plots.

A chunk of the podcast transports readers to the FBI's COINTELPRO work, especially in the 1960s, and describes how the intelligence agency used informants to disrupt social and political groups.

Back then, there really wasn't any watchdog work being done by Congress.

"The basic task was to determine whether excesses of these kinds could be prevented if Congress carried out its oversight functions. Because at that time, there was no congressional oversight that was worth anything. There were certainly no committees that had any responsibility for overseeing the activities of the intelligence agencies," Hart says.

Recently, Hart spoke up in both a New York Times op-ed and a Guardian article regarding his feelings about what certain Republicans are comparing to the Church Committee.

In January, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Representative Jim Jordan, established their own select committee that they're calling "the new Church Committee." Ostensibly, this committee will examine whether the administration of Joe Biden has molded a federal government into being overtly partisan in a way that unfairly targets Republicans. But Hart is calling bullshit on this committee.

"The right wing in the Republican Party is merely using the comparison to the Church Committee as a smokescreen. What they’re up to in this Jordan committee has little, if anything, to do with what we were doing, which was totally bipartisan, totally in good faith and earned the respect and trust of every administration since Nixon. All I wanted to point out, as the last survivor, is that merely calling themselves 'the new Church Committee' doesn’t ring true," Hart says.
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Alphabet Boys is a new podcast created and narrated by Trevor Aaronson that focuses on an informant who worked to build criminal cases for the federal government by instigating protesters into coming up with criminal plots.
Sam Pierson
Hart doesn't have much to say about Alphabet Boys, beyond that "the man who claimed to be inserted into the organizations here in Denver by the FBI didn’t sound like the kind of person that the FBI would use for that project."

"The experience I had in the Church Committee and service on the first Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee for four of five years, you tend to question everything," Hart adds. "I’d have to know a lot more about him than what the original story said, with all of his tattoos and buying weapons here and there. He didn’t sound right to me."
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