Robert  Charles

Congress is about to commence the Benghazi Oversight Hearings, a step in the right direction for the cause of “truth, justice and the American Way.” That said, a note of caution is in order, especially for those of us who wish to see this inquiry end in success – that is, to fully serve the larger purposes of informing the American People about what happened, because it really does matter.

Twenty-one years ago, a 51-day stand-off between a religious cult and federal law enforcement officials ended in the tragic deaths, most by burning and asphyxiation, of 76 adults and children living in a complex near Waco, Texas. The national uproar over what was viewed as a horrific, seemingly avoidable series of deaths, the murky circumstances surrounding the fire, the risky Federal gas assault on the compound (authorized by then-Attorney General Janet Reno), and the role of the Clinton White House was considerable. The Nation was stunned, horrified, heart sick. Congressional hearings were needed.

In some ways, the uproar over events at Waco was commensurate with the one surrounding events at Benghazi. There were questions of misguided leadership, failed preparation, ungrounded assumptions, profound errors in judgment, suspect motivations, internal fights within a beleaguered administration concerned for re-election, operational mismanagement, even layers of possible conspiracy. To address these persistent national concerns, leadership in Congress created a joint committee, this one commissioned to conduct a thorough-going investigation and hold what would be known as “The Waco Hearings.” Movies would be made about the event, and hearings. Books would be written, and three volumes of testimony would be published, each one the length of Tolstoy’s tome, War and Peace.

Nineteen years ago, on the heels of that national tragedy, I was one of two congressional staffers assigned to run those hearings. To do so, we needed to structure the investigation, draft rolling document requests, interrogatories and letters to Federal agencies, conduct seemingly endless interviews, issue multiple subpoenas, assign roles, coordinate what was learned, and shape what would eventually become an eight-day, 97-witness series of high-profile hearings, covered gavel-to-gavel by C-SPAN and CNN.

Robert Charles

Robert B. Charles is a former US Court of Appeals clerk, litigator and adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. He served as Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, and presently heads a consulting firm in Washington DC.