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Leavitt: Panel probed Jan. 6 with well-tested line of inquiry

New York Times archive screenshot##A brief New York Times story from Jan. 26, 1860, about witnesses summoned to testify at a Senate committee investigation of John Brown and fellow abolitionists’ raid on a government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia.
New York Times archive screenshot##A brief New York Times story from Jan. 26, 1860, about witnesses summoned to testify at a Senate committee investigation of John Brown and fellow abolitionists’ raid on a government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia.

After more than 1,200 interviews and 10 public hearings over the course of 18 months, the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack released its 845-page final report late on Dec. 22.

The report recommended the Department of Justice prosecute former President Donald Trump on four criminal charges, including conspiracy and incitement of insurrection.

It also made several legislative recommendations, including reform of the process to count electoral votes in presidential elections. And it recommended Congress bar use the 14th Amendment to bar Trump and his co-conspirators from seeking public office in the future.

The committee’s recommendation to prosecute a former president was unprecedented. But its investigation of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, fell squarely within Congress’ power, and added a new chapter to a centuries-long history of congressional investigations into government scandals and failures.

Congress has broad investigative powers.

Its standing and special committees, known as select committees, regularly conduct both preemptive oversight and retroactive investigations. The aim is to identify specific cases of wrongdoing, both inside and outside government.

Committee investigation reports, released at the end of focused probes, often serve as valuable historical documents. They provide detailed chronicles of the events that motivated the inquiries.

For instance, the final report released by the House Select Committee on Benghazi offered a minute-by-minute accounting of events leading to the deadly terrorist attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.

The reports typically reiterate the questions that prompted the investigation, explain how the committee conducted its work and delineate the relevant evidence and progression of events. Finally, a report will provide recommendations for fixing the problems the inquiry uncovered.

These recommendations may be classified into three distinct types: legal, legislative and institutional. Of the 11 distinct recommendations the Jan. 6th committee offered in its final report, one offered a legal recommendation focused on accountability, nine proposed new policies and actions, and one proposed increased oversight in Congress itself.

Committees can recommend legal action, be it civil, criminal or both, to the federal Department of Justice. But they cannot bring such actions themselves.

Federal prosecutors often conduct their own parallel investigations during the same timeframe as congressional inquiries. But they also take congressional evidence and referrals seriously.

The Jan. 6th committee’s vote on Dec. 19, 2022, was the first time Congress has referred a former president for criminal prosecution.

During its investigation of the Teapot Dome bribery scandal in the 1920s, the Senate Public Lands Committee found evidence of corruption by, among others, Interior Secretary Albert Fall. Committee Chairman Thomas Walsh recommended Fall be prosecuted for “contemptuous disregard of the law.”

Fall was also investigated by special counsels appointed by President Calvin Coolidge. He was ultimately indicted, convicted and sentenced to prison for bribery.

In the 1970s, Congress’ investigation into the Nixon administration’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in led to the conviction of three Nixon aides for obstruction of justice. In the 1980s, the Senate’s Iran-Contra investigation into secret and unlawful arms sales by the Reagan administration led, along with the independent Tower Commission’s report, to conviction of three Reagan advisers for charges ranging from conspiracy to obstruction of Congress.

In highly political investigations, Congress may stop short of recommending specific criminal charges. But it can encourage federal prosecutors to review the committee’s findings over the course of their own investigations.

For instance, in 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to investigate property investments in the Whitewater Development Corp. made by Bill and Hillary Clinton when they were governor and first lady of Arkansas.

A year later, the Senate established a special committee to conduct its own Whitewater inquiry. In the Republican majority’s final report, the committee accused the Clinton administration of “highly improper conduct.” But it stopped short of recommending criminal indictments.

In a follow-up letter to independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the committee suggested that he “take whatever action you deem appropriate” after reviewing the committee’s evidence against three Clinton aides. Starr later indicted one of those aides for fraud.

Committee reports often include guides for policy reform in both the executive and legislative branches to address the failures that sparked the investigation.

Perhaps a committee’s most far-reaching set of legislative proposals came after the Church Committee investigated the CIA’s role in the assassination of foreign leaders and its potentially unconstitutional domestic surveillance. In 1976, the committee made 96 recommendations for reforming the U.S. intelligence community.

Two years later, Congress followed through. It passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, commonly known as “FISA.” The law requires intelligence agencies to obtain warrants before conducting surveillance on American citizens.

In light of the committee’s revelations of the FBI’s spying on activists like Martin Luther King Jr. — approved by the long-standing agency director, J. Edgar Hoover — Congress also established a single 10-year term for FBI directors.

While Congress did not enact the Church Committee’s proposal to ban foreign assassinations, President Gerald Ford did so via executive order in 1976. This order was revised upheld by Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, but was weakened by policies adopted for the U.S. war on terror beginning in 2001.

Committees can make suggestions for increasing the ease and effectiveness of future oversight, both inside and outside Congress. Such a move can be sold to fellow legislators as a nonpartisan imperative for checking executive power.

For example, after the conclusion of the Truman Committee’s World War II-era investigation in which it was charged with “exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in the war effort and war profiteering,” Congress made the committee permanent, establishing the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

That subcommittee currently has the broadest investigative jurisdiction of any Senate committee, with the power to investigate all government agencies as well as all “aspects of crime and lawlessness within the United States which … affect the national health, welfare, and safety.”

In response to the Church Committee’s suggestion in 1976, Congress established Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence in the House and Senate. Both have access to classified information and oversight of the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Congress can also pass laws to facilitate or strengthen oversight within government agencies themselves.

For instance, the Inspector General Act of 1978 established centralized, independent oversight offices in major government agencies. It was inspired by a House committee’s final report on waste and mismanagement in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Committee reports may also have important political consequences, though those effects are not necessarily planned or anticipated.

During its 2014-2016 investigation, for instance, the House Benghazi committee discovered that Hillary Clinton had improperly used a private email server when she was secretary of state.

The committee did not recommend criminal charges against Clinton. But it condemned the State Department for delays in turning over Clinton’s emails to the committee and argued that “[T]he manner in which those records were housed during and after her tenure … makes it impossible to ever represent to the families of those killed in Benghazi that the record is whole.”

The email controversy would dog Clinton in her 2016 campaign for the presidency. The decision by FBI Director James Comey, in October 2016, to inform Congress of new information regarding Clinton’s emails may have contributed to her loss to Donald Trump in November 2016.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.

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