As someone who has long advocated for the formation of a select committee on Benghazi, this week’s vote that it has become a reality was welcome and exciting news. Since learning about the upcoming committee probe, I have been thinking long and hard about what advice I have to offer after my experiences in similar high-profile congressional investigations.
The right committee rules and procedures are incredibly important to establish at the outset. Failure to do so gives the White House and the Democrats on the committee weapons to stall the committee and lead to its ultimate demise.
During the Clinton Administration, I served as an investigator for the Special Committee to Investigate Whitewater in the U.S. Senate and again as Chief Investigator for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. I helped lead the very high profile Whitewater investigation, Campaign Finance and Foreign Money into the Clinton/Gore Campaign investigation, and the Dual Use technology going to China investigation. The latter was turned over to a select committee led by Chairman Chris Cox. During my time on these committees, I learned a great deal. Hopefully some of what we learned the hard way can help Chairman Gowdy and his team:
1) Timeframe: Conduct a thorough investigation and follow the facts where they lead. Do not agree to an arbitrary end-certain date for the committee, even if you have one in mind. The Democrats on the committee in conjunction with the White House will simply run out the clock using delay tactics.
2) Committee Make-Up: The committee consists of 12 Members (7 Republicans and 5 Democrats). That’s a good make-up because the American people deserve results and will get more out of it due to the fact that the committee is small and concise.
3) Questioning by the Chairman/Ranking Member or Counsel: Allow for opening 30-minute rounds of questioning by Chairman Gowdy or the ranking member or their chief counsels. By hiring a trusted current or former prosecutor with experience in political cases to conduct depositions and ask questions during the hearings, the committee Chairman and Members can deliver more effective questions and follow-ups. Each member should have 10 minutes to ask questions in each round instead of the normal five.
4) Subpoena & Deposition Authority: Perhaps the most important decision will be the one to demand unilateral subpoena and deposition authority. If the committee has to vote on every single subpoena and deposition that is proposed, the investigation will become bogged down and cannot be successful.
5) Invoking the Fifth Amendment: Any individual who wishes to plead the Fifth Amendment should do it in person at a hearing before the American people.
6) Consult with People Who Have Been Here Before: Chairman Gowdy will do an outstanding job and is a great student of history. So, I recommend he talk to current and former members, staff, and other experts who have gone down this road before him. I expect the Democrats will certainly be looking to those who have been there before, like Congressman Henry Waxman, Richard Ben-Veniste and Neil Eggleston to name just a few. The names Michael Chertoff, Louis Freeh, former Congressmen Jim Rogan, and former Chairman Dan Burton come to mind for Chairman Gowdy. They are a treasure trove of what to do and what not to do, use them and others.
7) Technology: The committee needs to purchase an investigative computer program that can advance the work of the staff. There are going to be tens of thousands of documents that they will have to go through and the committee must have the technology to digest it all and have a state of the art database to organize the information. Back in the 90s we had to build that program… twenty years later the technology has only gotten better. It was one of our best investments.
8) Communications: The committee must have a seasoned communications director that is trusted and experienced in working with the press and getting the proper messaging out to influential reporters.
It is my fervent hope that Chairman Gowdy and the other Members on the committee and their staffers take these suggestions to heart. By following these simple but important steps, the American people will get the answers they deserve. There is so much at stake with this investigation, and it needs to be given its best chance to succeed.