Russia Investigation Benchmarks

As congressional investigations progress, bi-partisan group urges best practices to ensure credible results

Today, a bipartisan group of fifteen experts on congressional investigations and national security released a set of benchmarks for evaluating ongoing congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 federal elections and related matters [LINK HERE]. With so much of the investigations carried out in secret, these benchmarks provide indicators for judging whether they are credible–or whether they suffer from improper or counterproductive partisanship. The experts call on congressional committees to publicly adopt these best practices to assure the public that their investigations will lead to the truth.

The benchmarks for a credible investigation are: a well-defined scope, active bipartisan participation, public access to the information learned, and thorough public reporting of the investigation’s conclusions.

Rep. Claudine Schneider, a former Republican member of Congress from Rhode Island, said on the critical role of congressional investigations: “Congress has a critically important role to play in protecting our elections and our democracy in the future, and the first step must be understanding what happened in the last election. It is clear that there have been some interventions. Our Congress has powerful investigative tools, and it must use them effectively if it is to honestly serve the American people it claims to represent.”

Implementation of these benchmarks are urgently needed as some investigations appear to be making significant progress while others appear to be devolving in troubling ways. Recent reports indicate that members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are engaged in discussions over whether and when to issue reports and findings. Other reports indicate that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence continues to struggle with internal divisions, with its nominally-recused Chairman Devin Nunes issuing subpoenas without coordinating with his counterparts. Significant failures in meeting these benchmarks could be fatal to the credibility of the committee’s’ investigations with the general public.

Austin Evers, former State Department senior counsel for oversight and current executive director of American Oversight, emphasized the importance of committees adopting these benchmarks: “While concerns over Russian interference in our elections and alleged collusion between one campaign with a foreign power are unprecedented, there are well-hewn best practices for Congress to follow to ensure that it reaches the truth, has the credibility to hold people accountable, and explains to the public what it finds,” Evers said. “If this Congress follows best practices, history will remember its Russia investigations in the same category as Watergate, Teapot Dome, and 9-11; if it doesn’t, there’s a real risk that they could meet the ignoble fate of investigations into Benghazi.”

The benchmarks are common sense and achievable, but hardly guaranteed under the current circumstances. They also make accommodations for committees to adjust as they proceed. For example, they acknowledge that Congress cannot necessarily know in advance where an investigation will lead, and that most investigations include at least some elements that must occur behind closed doors. As a result, they focus on whether a committee has a set of processes in place that, in the experiences of the experts, generally lead to and indicate a credible investigation.

The ultimate assessment of an investigation’s effectiveness can usually only be made in hindsight. However, Congress can – and should – assure the public that it is using a process designed to reach the truth and allow us to protect future elections, the core of our democracy.