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Questioning The Questioning

May 24, 1987|Samuel Dash | Samuel Dash, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, served as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee

WASHINGTON — Now that the Senate and House Select committees on the Iran- contra affair are three weeks into their public hearings, what are we learning about the rightness or wrongness of what the President or the President's men did? I don't mean what have we heard the witnesses say--but what have we understood the testimony to mean? The most important function of Congress in situations involving alleged abuse of power by the President, like Watergate and now the Iran- contra affair, is its public-informing function. In such crises, only when the American people are fully informed can we responsibly assert ourselves as the ultimate authority in this democracy.

Both committees announced that the hearings are designed to expose the complete facts of the scandal to the public--but have they chosen a proper strategy?

It is too early to appraise the effectiveness of their efforts. Certainly, the committees do not lack the expertise necessary for success. The chief counsel of both committees have outstanding professional backgrounds in gathering and presenting evidence in complex litigation. However, the committees' self-imposed deadlines on the length of the hearings and, as a consequence, their need to limit witnesses mainly to principal figures, may disable the committees' ability to tell the story from beginning to end and to permit a full public grasp of what went wrong and why.

This problem may be reflected by the decision to call Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord and Robert C. McFarlane as the first witnesses. The public was brought in at the middle of the story, not the beginning. In addition, Secord and McFarlane are key targets and there was no preceding testimony from knowledgeable lesser participants to serve as background. This allowed them to defend their conduct unchallenged--except in cross-examination by the chief counsel and committee members.

If the Senate Watergate Committee had followed the same plan, it might have called Atty. Gen. John N. Mitchell and presidential aide John D. Ehrlichman as its first witnesses. But its strategy was different. Remember Robert C. Odle Jr., the obscure director of administration for Richard M. Nixon's Committee to Reelect the President? He was called as the Senate Watergate Committee's first witness, with pointer and chart, to describe CREEP's campaign organization. Through him, H. R. Haldeman, Mitchell, Jeb Stuart Magruder, G. Gordon Liddy, James W. McCord Jr., etc.--Watergate break-in and cover-up figures later to testify--were introduced as names on the chart or as presidential aides responsible for transferring White House staffers to the campaign.

Then came another unknown witness, Bruce A. Kehrli, a White House aide, with a chart of the White House staff, to show the positions staffers held at the White House before being transferred to the campaign committee. This was the Senate committee's effort to educate the public on how Nixon's presidential election campaign was organized and to introduce the players in the Watergate drama and show how they were positioned to execute a political burglary through a covert intelligence plan. Kehrli was followed by the policemen who caught the Watergate burglars; then some of the burglars; then more campaign staffers to recount the beginnings of the cover-up; then Magruder and John W. Dean III, testifying under immunity, who pointed fingers at Nixon's attorney general, his two highest White House aides and the President himself.

By the end of June, 1973, the public had watched the Watergate story unfold, understood what had happened and was ready to listen to and weigh the explanations of the principal accused--Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and the President--that followed, either in the form of testimony or public statements. That the public fully understood what the Senate Watergate Committee presented to them in the first phase of the hearings between May 17 and Aug. 4, 1973, was dramatically demonstrated by the outburst of outrage from millions of Americans over the October, 1973, firing of Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox on the orders of Nixon--the "Saturday Night Massacre."

At the risk of sounding like an old general refighting the last war, I have evoked, in some detail, the memory of the Senate Watergate Committee's hearings to contrast them with the present Iran- contra hearings. Of course, there is no stereotype format for major hearings. Each congressional investigation is confronted by unique facts and problems which may call for a strategy different from that used by an earlier investigation. And the fact that I have not been privy to the internal planning and constraints of the current congressional investigations must qualify any comparison I make. However, the common goal of all congressional investigations must be effective public communication of the events as a whole.

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