Congressional Russia Investigations Must be Transparent and Credible

Americans’ eyes are on Congress these days for many reasons, not the least of which are the multiple, high-profile investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections (and related issues like collusion and obstruction of justice).

These investigations are critically important: unlike Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, which is about prosecutions and intelligence, the congressional investigations are primarily a vehicle to get to the truth and inform the public.

From the outside, some of the investigations are going better than others. The Senate Intelligence Committee has generally demonstrated seriousness and bipartisanship as it has approached its task, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes openly used his position provide political cover to the White House.

American Oversight recently joined with a bipartisan group of experts in congressional investigations to develop a set of benchmarks for evaluating the various investigations and to help Americans determine if the committee inquiries are credible.

The benchmarks (available here) for include four key elements:

  1. A well-defined scope – and the willingness to follow the facts where they lead.
  2. Comprehensive bipartisan participation, including active involvement by both the Chairman and Ranking Member of the committee and sharing of information with bipartisan committee members.
  3. Transparency of the investigation, with a commitment to holding hearings in public whenever possible and the regular production of non-classified records uncovered by the committee.
  4. Public reporting of the investigation’s findings, including the release of regular reports on the committees activities, staffing, budget, and conclusions.

Congressional oversight enjoys a hallowed role in our constitutional system. As the Supreme Court has recognized, “The power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad . . . . It includes surveys of defects in our social, economic or political system for the purposes of enabling the Congress to remedy them.” Watkins v. U.S., 354 U.S. 178, 187 (1957).

Unfortunately, despite its importance, congressional oversight can also go awry. Just as with any endeavor the House or Senate undertake, investigations are always at risk of breaking down in the face of partisan rancor, outside pressures, and general chaos. Indeed, even the famed Watergate investigation looked like a three-ring circus from time to time.

We need to get this right. The investigations into Russian interference in our election are arguably more important than any that have taken place in recent years. At a fundamental level, public confidence in our democracy depends in large part on public confidence in our electoral system – and that makes it especially important for the congressional investigations, which happen in view of and on behalf of the public, to be fair, thorough, independent, and credible.

The benchmarks provide a pathway to achieve that objective, and we and others will continue watching closely as Congress moves forward with this vital work.

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