The partisan House impeachment vote on October 31, formalizing the process and seeking to “normalize” unprecedented practices, does not undo the harm. House leaders are badly off track – beginning with use of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to conduct secret depositions. What we are witnessing is the Old English Star Chamber – and it endangers American democracy. Here is why.
In 1975, the House Intelligence Committee was formed to investigate illegalities by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Secrecy was justified only by the need to review classified material.
Throwing HPSCI’s cloak over impeachment has no justification. Questions posed are not on classified material. In fact, the seminal July 25, 2019 call transcript between President Trump and Ukraine’s President has been released – by the White House.
Of course, proper use of HPSCI would be investigating misdeeds by CIA and FBI during the 2016 election. But that will not happen, as House leadership refuses to hold a Democrat Administration accountable.
Instead, HPSCI has been diverted to impeachment, purview of Judiciary. In effect, another non-partisan institution has been yoked to politics. This time, it is serious. This move has the potential for long-term damage.
So far, HPSCI has secretly interrogated 15 witnesses – including four Ambassador-rank former officials (Marie Yovanovitch, Kurt Volker, Gordon Sondland, and Bill Taylor), two Assistant Secretaries and two Deputy Assistant Secretaries (Kathleen Wheelbarger, Phillip Reeker, George Kent and Laura Cooper), three White House staff (Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman, and Catherine Croft), an advisor to the Secretary of State (Michael McKinley), acting Director of National Intelligence (Joseph McGuire), inspector general (Michael Atkinson), and acting Director of OMB (Russell Vought).
Their pattern is clockwork. Witnesses are cherry-picked, and secretly pumped for dirt. Depositions are conducted without an attorney for the accused president, without collateral subpoena power by an aggrieved minority, and without due process. No uninterrupted cross-examination or power to object to questioning.
Depositions are premised on hearsay (i.e. the anonymous “whistleblower complaint,” ironically coached by a HPSCI staffer), while objections to leading questions, witness speculation, false assumptions, or political remarks indicting or insulting the president are considered immaterial.
Each secret interrogation is followed – as if scripted – by the tick-tock of selected media releases. Contravening rules on release, much as the Obama FBI did, tantalizing bits of adverse, anonymously sourced testimony turn into the next day’s headlines.
Despite the exculpatory nature of some witnesses, their appearances are cast in the worst light by committee members, who seem to have cultivated an echo chamber of the media.
In short, this committee has become a Star Chamber, the exact thing our forefathers framed our Constitution to avoid. While impeachment is political, the process was never meant to be secret, substitute for an election, or oust an unpopular president. Most presidents have been unpopular.
Our Founders would not have imagined a secret committee tasked with bringing down the president – working their will behind closed doors, asserting facts they do not have, aiming to disenfranchise the public. They trusted the public.
They could not have imagined Congress dropping due process – a principle for which they fought – to advance crass political ends. They abhorred secret interrogations and would have spoken up against a House conjuring an impeachable offense to reverse an election.
Net-net, enormous damage is being done to our political system by turning the Intelligence Committee into a Star Chamber – a place for secretly vetting impeachments. Unlike a grand jury, which protects witness identity and has unbiased jurors, the Democratic House is using secrecy as a political foil.
Far from protecting witness identity, they have leaked testimony – a criminal act for grand jurors. Rather than unbiased legal review, secrecy promotes their political bias. The justifications that permit secrecy for a grand jury do not work here.
In short, by lashing intelligence to impeachment, this House has normalized secret proceedings. That has implications for America, and the next Democratic president facing a Republican House. Back comes the Star Chamber, which allowed secret proceedings for political oppression.
Today’s impeachment vote aims to normalize the process. It does not cure the wrong – any more than repaying a bribe or apologizing for assault. The damage is done. If this charade continues to impeachment, Katie bar the door. The damage to our Republic will be serious.