The Jan. 6 commission wouldn’t undermine criminal investigations

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The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was a sobering moment in American history. Our democracy came under siege, and the American people have a right to know the truth about what happened.

A continued lack of a common understanding of what took place on Jan. 6 will only accelerate a damaging rift forming in our democracy. A bipartisan congressional commission is key to gathering a set of facts that all Americans can trust and helping legislators ensure such an attack never happens again.

Some opponents of the commission have recently argued that a special Jan. 6 commission would be duplicative and could interfere with criminal investigations already underway, but this line of thinking is misguided.

As I testified in Congress a few years ago, concurrent criminal and congressional investigations are actually a very effective way to address both the narrow concerns over criminal wrongdoing and the systemic issues that may require legislative solutions.

Congressional investigations often have a broader mandate and unearth information that may be significant but not criminal. A congressional commission could uncover systemic issues faster than a criminal investigation and provide facts to the public quickly without sharing details from the criminal probe. Congress is also positioned to consider solutions that would help prevent similar attacks in the future. The special Jan. 6 commission would have the added benefit of being fully bipartisan and run by commissioners removed from the politics of Congress itself.

There is a risk that concurrent investigations hurt ongoing criminal probes by tainting evidence or compromising the criminal investigative process. But that risk is manageable, and history shows that parallel congressional and criminal investigations can coexist without impeding criminal prosecutions. 

Congressional committees investigated the Watergate scandal, Iran-Contra, 1996 campaign finance, and Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals, as well as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, concurrently with criminal investigations. Many of those Congressional investigations led to needed reforms that would not have occurred had the inquiries been limited to law enforcement.

In the wake of the Watergate break-in, a congressional committee investigation led to a slate of good government reforms. At the same time, a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation led by a special counsel aggressively pursued White House audio tapes, resulting in the resignation of several high level officials and President Richard Nixon himself. 

A congressional investigation into the Abramoff lobbying scandal uncovered corruption in the executive branch and Congress, leading lawmakers to enact new lobbying rules and create the Office of Congressional Ethics. A concurrent DOJ probe secured 20 guilty pleas and convictions from those associated with Abramoff.

And the 9/11 Commission, on which the Jan. 6 commission was modeled, identified numerous information and intelligence gaps that led to the creation of the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

So as a 2017 report from my organization, the Project On Government Oversight, found concurrent criminal and congressional investigations can work in harmony. And to ensure that congressional investigations are successful, POGO has made several recommendations. These probes should be bipartisan, well-staffed and funded, enabled to issue subpoenas, and focused on a narrow set of issues.

The commission formed by the legislation passed by the House meets these criteria. It would be evenly split between parties, able to issue subpoenas and fueled by a robust staff. The commission also has a clear, narrow scope that will enable it to establish a clear set of facts on what led to and happened on Jan. 6, 2021. 

The existence of additional investigations related to the attack should not preclude Congress from establishing this special commission. This commission is our best chance to see a public accounting of a very serious threat to our democracy, and it will set Congress up to enact any necessary forward-looking reforms that could help prevent future attacks. 

The American people need and deserve the truth. A special commission will best ensure that happens.

Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog that  investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power.

Tags 9/11 Commission Capitol attacks Capitol insurrection Democracy January 6 commission

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