Cover: Government by Investigation

Government by Investigation

Congress, President, and the Search for Answers, 1945–2012

Presidential and congressional investigations are particularly powerful tools for asking tough questions about highly visible, often complex government breakdowns, including: communist infiltration of government 1950s, the Vietnam War during the 1960s, Watergate and Central Intelligence Agency abuses during the 1970s, among 96 others covered in Government by Investigation, by Paul Light. Light, one of America’s premier authorities on public service and management, provides a deep assessment of what he has identified as the federal government’s one hundred most significant investigations since World War II.

See the one hundred most significant investigations since World War II

Government by Investigation provides a deep history and analysis of these investigations, providing rare insight into why some great investigations succeeded, while others failed, and what investigators can do to increase the odds that their work will pay off in improved government performance and more effective public policy.

Informed by a deep reading of investigatory histories, numerous interviews with legislators, commission members, and leading scholars, as well as his own experience and original research, Light undertakes his own search for answers to a long list of questions about how each of these investigations performed. Was the investigation visible and well led? Was it serious and thorough? Did it involve a particularly controversial issue or a powerful public figure? Were investigators given enough freedom to pursue their goals? Did they forge the bipartisanship so often associated with what he calls the “good investigation?” And most important, what are the most important drivers of ultimate impact? Government by Investigation will inform practitioners and observers of government on what drives impact in the American system.

Excerpt from the book:

Resolving Doubts

Twelve of my investigations were primarily centered on resolving doubts about a controversy or event. Again, many of these investigations were also concerned about repair and other forms of deterrence and prevention. But their primary impact resided in a hoped-for end to ongoing debates about who did what. Roughly three-fifths of these investigations used fact finding to reach their final judgments, while the rest used blame setting.


The investigation of the Kennedy assassination was designed in part to end the debate about who killed the young president on November 22, 1963. The question was not just about who pulled the trigger, however. It also involved allegations that there were other shooters, accomplices, moneymen, and high-level conspirators.

President Johnson was the driving force behind the blue-ribbon President’s Commission on the Kennedy Assassination. With a long list of investigations either under way or about to be launched in the House, Senate, and Justice Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and even the state of Texas, Johnson preempted the chaos through his executive order creating the commission. According to Robert A. Caro’s detailed account of the commission, Johnson acted both to reassure the country and to protect himself from charges that he was somehow involved in the assassination—after all, was he not in Texas when Kennedy was killed?100

Johnson’s intention to put the doubts to rest was clear in his courtesy phone calls to congressional leaders on November 29, only hours before he created the commission. As his two phone calls to Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) that day amply suggest, Johnson was not to be denied in recruiting his close allies to the seven-member body. When he first called Russell at 4:05 p.m., his old friend was compliant as Johnson explained the need for a commission:

We’re trying to avoid all the House committees . . . and Bobby Kennedy has got his ideas . . . so I’ve about concluded that I can get people pretty well together and I talked to the leadership on trying to have the three branches . . . on about a seven-man board . . . I think it would be better than the Judiciary running one investigation, the House running another investigation . . . and having four or five going opposite directions.101

Johnson called Russell again four hours later to tell him that he wanted him to be his “man on that Commission.” Russell again resisted the president’s request:

Well now, Mr. President, I know I don’t have to tell you of my devotion to you, but I just can’t serve on that Commission … with Chief Justice Warren . . . I don’t like that man. I don’t have any confidence in him at all . . .

But Johnson gave the leader of the southern Democrats no choice:

Dick . . . it has been announced and you can serve with anybody for the good of America and this is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface and we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that . . . you’re going to lend your name to this thing . . . I gave the announcement . . . it is already in the papers and you’re on it and you’re going to be my man on it.

Russell clearly did not know that Johnson had already made the announcement sometime between the two calls, nor did he know that Warren had accepted the chairmanship. By the time he called Russell a second time, at 8:55 p.m., his old friend was furious: “You ought to have told me you were going to name me.” After a short “did” and “did not” exchange between the two legislative giants, Johnson said he was “begging” Russell to serve. Russell’s response was a classic summation of the Johnson style: “You’ve never begged me,” he told the president. “You’ve always told me.”

Russell was not the only reluctant member of the commission, however. Chief Justice Earl Warren demurred as well, but agreed to chair the effort after meeting with Johnson only hours before the president’s announcement. According to one of my Johnson-era respondents, Warren finally relented under withering pressure and began building the commission’s investigatory infrastructure the next day. With a full-time staff of eighty-seven supported by more than 210 FBI and Secret Service agents, the commission produced its 888-page report less than a year later. It also produced twenty-five volumes of evidence that were not fully released until the 1990s. Although Warren protected his freedom to investigate, albeit within a fairly narrow definition of the key questions at hand, the commission reached Johnson’s hoped-for conclusion nonetheless: Lee Harvey Oswald, and Lee Harvey Oswald alone, fired the shots that killed Kennedy.

The commission’s logic was simple: Oswald owned the rifle that fired the three shots, carried it into the book depository, was at the window when the shots were fired, had the skill needed to fire three shots in quick order as Kennedy passed below, left his fingerprints on the rifle, later killed Dallas policeman J. D. Tippit in an apparent attempt to escape, resisted arrest, and repeatedly lied to the police. The commission also rejected the swirl of conspiracy theories involving Cuba, organized crime, a second shooter positioned on a grassy knoll ahead of the motorcade, the military-industrial complex, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with three simple words: “Oswald acted alone.”

Despite its unequivocal conclusion, the commission never fully convinced the public that Oswald had acted alone. Nor did the commission end the investigatory activity, which fueled at least four other investigations over the next twenty years:

—The first was launched in 1968 by Attorney General Ramsey Clark and endorsed the commission’s finding that Oswald fired the shots that killed Kennedy, a point never questioned by any of the investigations.

—The second was launched in 1975 by Gerald Ford’s executive order.

Headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, it endorsed all of the commission’s findings.

—The third was also launched in 1975 as part of Sen. Frank Church’s (D-Idaho) broad investigation of CIA abuses, which is discussed in chapter 5.

Unlike the Warren Commission and its progeny, the Church Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence concluded that the FBI and CIA may have withheld crucial evidence from the commission and that the FBI was clearly pressured to refute the conspiracy theories. However, the committee also concluded that it had seen no evidence of any conspiracy involving Cuba or regarding the commission’s broad conclusions. The fact that intelligence agencies may have failed to inform the commission of “certain information” did not lead the Church investigation to conclude that there had been a conspiracy.

—The fourth was launched in 1975 by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which affirmed the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald fired the shots that killed the president but concluded that there was a high probability that two shooters fired shots at the president, one from behind the motorcade and the other from the front.

Praise for the work of Paul Light:

"Written by one of this country's preeminent experts on the federal government, Paul Light's Government by Investigation is essential reading for investigators who seek better government."
—Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. representative; director, The Center on Congress at Indiana University

"Paul Light has done the nearly impossible, but the extraordinarily valuable. Government by Investigation is a must-read for anyone who works in the Congress, or cares about whether the Congress is performing its oversight duties well."
—Danielle Brian, executive director, Project on Government Oversight

"An impressive, prodigious achievement."
—David R. Mayhew, Sterling Professor, Yale University

"Paul Light's book will serve as the new bible for congressional investigations. He cogently separates partisan witch hunts from groundbreaking investigatory hearings that mattered. This is a must-read for political junkies and serious policy wonks alike."
—Tom Davis, U.S. representative

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Government by Investigation is available in both hardcover and eBook formats: