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Investigating? Then Do It Right

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May 31, 2013 | 2,955 views | Post a comment

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.

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.

That means mounting an inquiry that is forward-looking and constructive, focused on what went wrong and how it can be fixed. Retaining this focus can be quite 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. Lobbyists protect the interests they represent. The White House always wants to shield the President.

The approach legislative investigators take will be key to staying on track. Most important, they need to come in with an open mind and determine what actually happened. It’s amazing how much time gets spent arguing over what took place. Confirming the facts 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. A thorough and professional investigation will also be careful in selecting the witnesses it calls and in how it treats them. 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.
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