Investigating? Then do it right

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 1, 2013

By Lee H. Hamilton

By my count, 11 separate Washington investigations are looking into the three big issues besetting the Obama Administration right now: Benghazi, IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, and the Justice Department’s pursuit of national security leaks to Associated Press reporters. That’s a lot of scrutinizing by any measure.

Don’t get me wrong. Each case raises important questions, and the investigations offer Americans the chance to find out what went wrong and to fix the problem. But that will only happen if the investigators — on Capitol Hill and within the executive branch — do it right.

I’ve done my share of digging into complex matters — as co-chair of the Iran-Contra Special Committee, of the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group — and what I know is this: an investigation ought to be forward-looking and constructive, focused on a key question that is important to the country and to the American people.

What does it take to keep our U.S. missions secure? That’s what the Benghazi inquiry is really about. How do we make sure the IRS remains rigorously non-partisan and competently managed? In the AP case, how should the government balance respect for freedom of the media against the need to safeguard national security? These are matters of national interest, and the investigations give us a chance to pursue each of them.

But retaining a laser-like focus on what really counts is difficult in Washington. Any inquiry is bound to arouse people and groups who have something at stake in it, and they will fight long and hard to make sure their point of view prevails. Politicians look for partisan advantage. The federal bureaucracy protects its turf, and agencies do everything they can to spin testimony or cast blame elsewhere. Lobbyists protect the interests they represent. The White House always wants to shield the President, and can be counted on to drag its heels if an investigation heads in a direction it doesn’t like.

Then, too, the press, politicians, even members of investigating committees will get off track. Was there a cover-up? Who’s to blame for mistakes? Was there criminal wrongdoing? These are legitimate and serious questions. But they are less important to the long-term well-being of the country than trying to discover what went wrong and determining how to fix it; in the case of criminality, that’s an issue for prosecutors to pursue, not Congress.

To ensure that legislative investigators stay on track, their overall approach is crucial. Most important, they need to come in with an open mind and focus on the facts — on what actually happened. It’s amazing how much time gets spent arguing over what took place. Determining this is the bedrock of a good investigation, because once you get an understanding of events and how they came about, it becomes much easier to discern and agree upon solutions for the future.

An investigation’s overall approach also matters because simply launching one does not give you the credibility you need to fix things. That credibility only comes through seriousness of purpose, a bipartisan attitude, fair-minded professionalism, your relationship with the media, and the quality of the staff. A partisan staff generates partisan results, and doesn’t serve the investigation well. Similarly, if you adopt a posture of secrecy or appear to have a hidden agenda, you’ll feed the innate skepticism that meets any investigation; communicating openly to all parties is crucial.

A thorough and professional investigation will also be careful in selecting the witnesses it calls and in how it treats them. Volunteer witnesses will spring forward by the scores — so it’s crucial to find a broad range of witnesses who have stature within their fields, rigorously analyze the facts, are free of partisan entanglements, and strive to present the national interest. If you stack your witness list, you’ve undermined your ability to be taken seriously.

All of this makes conducting an investigation a minefield. But if the purpose is clear — getting to the bottom of what happened and coming up with approaches to fix the institutional shortcomings that come to light — and the methods are open, fair, bi-partisan, and trustworthy, the benefits to the American people can last for years.


Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.