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New House Investigation Panel Stirs Memories of an Earlier McCarthy

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers point to outrageous abuses of the federal government’s unchecked law enforcement and intelligence apparatus, vowing to get to the bottom of the dirty business and root out the shadowy figures responsible.

Americans have seen that scenario play out multiple times in history, with the latest example being the successful push by House Republicans to create the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government to investigate purported instances of federal agencies such as the F.B.I. and the military pursuing political foes and agendas.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republican backers of the new panel portray their effort as akin to the Senate’s famed Church Committee, a highly regarded bipartisan inquiry in the mid-1970s. Informally known by the name of the panel’s chairman, Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, the committee uncovered serious wrongdoing at the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the N.S.A., among other entities, leading to heralded civil liberties protections and much more aggressive congressional oversight of the intelligence community.

Mr. McCarthy on Thursday described the new committee as “Church style” as he trumpeted the first week’s work of House Republicans, including the creation of the panel.

“Government should be here to help you, not go after you,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters.

Democrats and historians see darker historical parallels. They liken the Republican zeal to pursue nebulous allegations of deep-state conspiracies to the “red scare” days of a McCarthy from an earlier era: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin.

Both the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1930s and 1940s have come to be seen as sordid, painful chapters in the congressional past, a series of communist witch hunts that needlessly destroyed lives. Lawmakers unleashed unfounded allegations in pursuit of sensational headlines and nonexistent infiltrators and traitors, and Democrats warn that the same could happen again.

“The Republicans are the party of law and order, and now they are out to destroy law and order as long as they think the agencies of law and order are conspiring against them and not working for them,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Democratic skepticism has been fueled by the fact that the new panel — and granting it authority to look into continuing criminal investigations — was among a host of demands that far-right Republicans made of Mr. McCarthy in exchange for their eventual votes for him in a historically drawn-out election for the speakership. Language in the resolution setting up the committee gave it the open-ended mission of investigating “how executive branch agencies work with, obtain information from and provide information to the private sector, nonprofit entities or other government agencies to facilitate action against American citizens.”

“This seems less Church and more McCarthy,” said Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale and the author of a 2022 biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime head of the F.B.I. known for his own misuse of the agency to pursue those he opposed politically.

Republicans reject such criticism and try to justify the panel by pointing to conservative causes célèbres such as “woke” school boards, internet censorship, excessive Covid restrictions and other incidents that have been found to be distorted and overblown. They say conservatives have been subjected to a double standard of justice, from former President Donald J. Trump on down, and they intend to prove it.

Hearings with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s and investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1930s and 1940s have come to be seen as sordid chapters in the history of Congress.Credit…George Tames/The New York Times

“Dozens of whistle-blowers who have come and talked to Republican staff on the Judiciary Committee don’t think this is a ploy,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “That is why they came to talk to us. They know how serious this is.”

To Mr. Jordan’s opponents, the Republican push smacks of the tactics of Joseph McCarthy, who used his position as the chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to open a wide-ranging investigation into charges made with little evidence but much innuendo.

His crusade to unmask communists and other subversives he alleged had infiltrated the government made him a national figure after a fairly nondescript start to his Senate career. But he was eventually abandoned by Senate colleagues who considered him a bully and was ultimately censured after a losing clash with the military in the famous nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings. Even Hoover got fed up with him. He died a ruined figure.

Larry Tye, a McCarthy biographer, said the outcome should serve as a cautionary tale.

“The one thing we can be guaranteed is a lot of people who we never knew about and will never pay attention to again will have their lives upended, because this is what these hearings do,” Mr. Tye said. “A huge warning sign ought to go up now that we have been through this before, and we ought to be very careful before we open up this demagogic can of worms again.”

Potential targets of the inquiry are already bracing for a showdown. For the F.B.I., it is a reversal of the past as the agency that helped feed McCarthy’s inquiry now finds itself in the hot seat.

Christopher A. Wray, the bureau’s director, has quietly been meeting with senators, trying to make inroads with members of Congress as the F.B.I. girds for House attacks that it is biased. Last week, he took a bipartisan contingent of senators on an agency jet to visit an F.B.I. facility in Clarksburg, W.Va.

At the Pentagon, senior officials have been preparing for hearings since it became clear that Republicans would control the House. Asked last week what steps the Defense Department was taking to prepare, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, was circumspect. “I would tell you that D.O.D. respects Congress’s important oversight role,” he said. “As always, we’ll continue to work closely with Congress and respond appropriately to legitimate congressional inquiries.”

Friends of Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say that he has been bracing to again answer questions from Republicans over the two calls he made to his Chinese counterpart in the waning weeks of the Trump administration, during which he said that the United States had no plans to attack China. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, the first Black man to lead the Defense Department, has come under fire from conservative Republicans who complain that the Pentagon, under his leadership, has become too “woke.”

Ms. Gage, the Yale historian, said there were legitimate lines of inquiry such a committee could pursue.

“In principle, having a regular investigation of F.B.I. methods could be a good thing,” she said. “But these circumstances are not the circumstances that are most likely to lead to real value for a broader public conversation.”

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

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