There reportedly is an agreement in the House of Representatives to move forward with creating a bipartisan commission with subpoena power like the one established after 9/11 to investigate the systemic failures that allowed insurrectionists to breach the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. This is welcome news for American democracy. But it is also welcome news for the standing of the United States overseas, where the U.S. government has repeatedly advocated for – and even demanded – such commissions in the wake of similar national crises.
While the post-election violence seen on Jan. 6 is a new phenomenon in the United States, it has plagued other countries from Myanmar to Burundi for years. For example, following the 2007 presidential election in Kenya and related allegations of electoral manipulation, violent protests divided along ethnic lines broke out across the country, leaving over 1,000 people dead and thousands more displaced.
When the international community was finally able to broker a power-sharing coalition government between the warring factions in Kenya, one of the key concessions that the United Nations, the United States, and the world insisted on was the establishment of several commissions of inquiry, including a Commission of Inquiry on Post-election Violence and an Independent Review Commission on the General Elections. In the months and years that followed, these commissions produced reports that authoritatively explained what happened and recommended a raft of reforms to prevent future violence and to protect Kenyan elections from manipulation. This built on decades of experience from other countries where commissions of inquiry helped promote post-violence accountability, including in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Chile following the defeat of General Pinochet, in Sierra Leone during the aftermath of their civil war, and perhaps most notably in South Africa following the end of apartheid.
The United States now needs to take a dose of its own medicine. It needs to follow the advice given to Kenya and allow a Jan. 6 Commission to properly investigate the post-election violence and identify necessary institutional reforms. Such a commission can detail what, if any, role disinformation played in the events leading up to Jan. 6. It can uncover what, if any, lapses occurred in protecting the security of government buildings. And determine what, if any, intelligence failings occurred in the lead-up to that tragic day. These collective findings are unlikely to happen without a commission and are necessary if the United States is to prevent Jan. 6 from serving as a model for future attacks.
Last week’s hearing in the House Oversight and Reform Committee on the Jan. 6 insurrection was a reminder of why a commission is needed instead of merely establishing a select committee. With one Republican member of Congress likening pictures of rioters inside the Capitol Building to “a normal tourist visit” and another even suggesting that the Department of Justice is “harassing peaceful patriots” by pursuing indictments, we are reminded that some members of Congress simply do not think an investigation is warranted or are trying to disingenuously equate the attacks on the U.S. Capitol with the civil unrest that occurred in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.
It is easy to see how a select committee, where members could take their questioning in any direction they choose, could easily go way off topic and devolve into partisan warfare similar to how the last select committee – the House Select Committee on Benghazi – did when the two parties not only failed to agree on the facts of what happened, but at times refused to even work with each other in drafting the report. This history repeated itself again three years ago when the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 election came to an abrupt end and the two parties not only reached different conclusions, but wrote separate reports.
This is why such an inquiry needs to be removed from the hyper-polarized environment that is Congress and instead be established as a well-resourced independent commission with a clear and specific mandate focused squarely on Jan. 6 and overseen by commissioners who aren’t focused on their next reelection campaign.
There is a reason that the United States promotes commissions with authority and independence in response to violence overseas. It’s seen them work time and time again, including here in the United States. The bipartisan, subpoena-wielding 9/11 Commission, charged with preparing a “full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11 attacks,” succeeded by not only authoritatively establishing the facts and circumstances that led to the attack, but also providing a blueprint for reform that Congress then implemented.
Since 9/11, there have been, and continue to be, prosecutions against the perpetrators, and enablers, of those attacks including some of whom are still being house in Guantanamo Bay almost 20 years later. There was congressional oversight. But it was the 9/11 Commission’s report that identified the systemic weaknesses that contributed to the attacks and that led to institutional changes aimed at preventing future attacks. And, as one of the best-selling government reports of all times, it was the 9/11 Commission’s report that broke through webs of misinformation and established the nonpartisan agreed-upon national narrative of what happened on that tragic day – something we are in desperate need of today.
Admittedly, establishing a bipartisan Jan. 6 Commission is only the start. It needs to be staffed by level-headed experts and not conspiracy theorists. It needs effective subpoena power so that the commission can call witnesses and break through the web of disinformation. And when it releases its final report detailing the facts and causes of the attack, its recommendations to prevent future attacks on U.S. democratic institutions need to be implemented. With such a thorough investigation and implementation of recommendations, the United States will not only help repair its democracy, but it will arm its diplomats with the credibility to look at the government of Myanmar – or wherever the next coup or coup attempt will be – and tell them that they need to pursue systemic accountability and reform in their own country.