Calling for an independent commission to investigate Trump could be a terrible mistake

Philip Shenon writes: The drumbeat is heard—again. After every national tragedy, or in the wake of a major political scandal or economic crisis, there are calls across Washington for creation of an independent, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to investigate. After Pearl Harbor, there was the Roberts Commission, named for its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. After the Kennedy assassination, there was the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. After the 2001 terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission. After the 2008 financial meltdown, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Now, Democratic leaders in Congress—and a handful of Republicans—are urging creation of an independent commission to investigate Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential election and, more specifically and explosively, whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. The prospects of an independent investigation seemed to grow after this week’s announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the bureau has opened a counterintelligence investigation of Trump aides for their possible ties to the Russian hacking operation that targeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The calls for an outside inquiry were louder still after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’s stunning claim on Wednesday that some on the Trump transition team had been swept up in government surveillance of other targets.

In welcoming Comey’s disclosure, Adam Schiff of California, the House panel’s ranking Democrat, said that, beyond the inquiries in Congress and the FBI, it was time for creation of “an independent commission that can devote the staff and resources to this investigation that we do not have, and that can be completely removed from any political considerations.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly called for creation of a “9/11-style commission” to deal with allegations involving the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Having written histories of both the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission and after spending years poring over their long-secret archives, I think I speak with confidence in warning the Democrats to be careful what they wish for. Neither of those blue-ribbon investigations—especially the 9/11 Commission, most often cited by Schiff, Pelosi and their colleagues as a model for a Trump-Russia inquiry—offers much hope that an independent commission would accomplish the Democrats’ goals, at least not if those goals include getting to the bottom of this mess in a timely fashion and holding individuals accountable for their wrongdoing.

The 10-member 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress over the initially fierce opposition of the Bush administration, is—accurately or not—held out as a gold standard for independent federal investigations. With its membership equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, it produced an elegantly written, unanimous report that documented the terrorist conspiracy behind the 2001 attacks and the larger history of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

But it is worth remembering that the 9/11 Commission got started late and took a long time to finish—the investigation lasted 20 months, with its final report not issued until July 2004, more than two and a half years after the Twin Towers fell. The logistics of actually setting up that commission were akin to organizing a small federal agency from scratch, albeit one that required a staff of dozens of experts with the highest-level security clearances.

And the 9/11 Commission achieved bipartisan agreement only because the panel abandoned any attempt at individual accountability. [Continue reading…]

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