As at least three congressional committees continue investigating Russian interference in our 2016 elections and related matters—including possible involvement by the Trump campaign—fifteen experts on congressional investigations and on national security have come together to propose a series of benchmarks for evaluating those investigations. The authors are a bipartisan group of experts who have worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, including three former Republican members of Congress and former congressional staff who have helped conduct investigations for congressional committees.
As former chief counsel for oversight and investigations for the House Judiciary Committee, I am honored to be part of the group.
The benchmarks outline the standards that we urge the committees to comply with to ensure accountability and transparency in their work. Much of the committees’ work so far has been carried out in secret because of confidential national security information that could otherwise be disclosed. To be sure, some of this work has to be done out of the public eye. But as the benchmarks explain, it’s critical that to the maximum extent possible, the public and the press get information about the investigations, both during the course of the committees’ work and after they are finished. So the benchmarks urge that all hearings be public, except where both the chair and ranking member of the committee agree that specific topics should be covered in closed session.
The benchmarks suggest interim reports from the committees beginning in December and every four months subsequently that would provide all transcripts and other records that can be released without harming the investigation. These would disclose information such as how many witnesses have been interviewed, how many document requests have been made, and how many staff are working on the investigations. This information should be shared with the public in bipartisan press conferences, and each committee should seek to provide a full public report when its investigation is completed, with only classified information withheld.
In addition to transparency and public reporting, the benchmarks offer guidelines on the importance of bipartisan cooperation and on the scope and status of the investigations. Each committee should keep the public informed on what issues it is considering and commit to going “where the facts lead it,” rather than arbitrarily cutting off lines of inquiry. The investigations’ scope should specifically include Russian interference with U.S. elections and possible collusion by anyone in the U.S. with such efforts.
The investigations should also cover, on a bipartisan basis, possible obstruction of justice or of any investigation by anyone in the Trump administration or campaign. In order to ensure the bipartisanship that is crucial to the integrity of the investigations, it is critical that, for example, the chair and ranking member of each committee consult and hopefully agree on witnesses to be interviewed or called to testify, that any on-the-record interviews be conducted jointly, and that there be bipartisan cooperation on document subpoenas and in sharing information received.
Some positive steps along these lines have been taken, such as the recent bipartisan press conference by the chair and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the other hand, reports continue to surface concerning partisan and other divisions on the House Intelligence Committee. The experts who put together these benchmarks believe that it is essential that all the investigating committees adopt and follow these guidelines. The high stakes for our democracy demand no less.
We also urge organizations and members of the public to use these benchmarks to help evaluate for themselves the progress of these investigations, which may literally take years to complete. As a progressive organization representing hundreds of thousands of Americans vitally concerned with our democracy, People For the American Way strongly supports these benchmarks and urges that they be adopted and followed. And the group that has authored these benchmarks plans to continue to be active and to use the benchmarks to review the committees’ performance as the investigations progress.
Elliot Mincberg is a senior fellow at People For the American Way. Previously he served as chief counsel for oversight and investigations of the House Judiciary Committee.