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Called to Testify

By Mike Unger

Photo: Stephen Vladeck

Au professors like the Washington College of Law's Stephen Vladeck often testify before Congress.

Like most Thursdays, December 16 was a workday for Stephen Vladeck. As usual, teaching and speaking about the law would consume his time and focus. Vladeck wouldn’t want it any other way.

But today the Washington College of Law professor’s students would be a bit older. In a few hours he was scheduled to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, which was diving into the white-hot cauldron of WikiLeaks.

Vladeck woke up around 6:30, scarfed down a bowl of cereal and a banana, then put on a black suit with a blue shirt and silver tie. He left his downtown apartment and walked 10 minutes through the frigid Washington wind before descending into Metro Center. Unlike most mornings, he didn’t board a Red Line train heading toward Tenleytown. He was an Orange/Blue Line passenger, destined for Capitol South.

A few minutes after 10 a.m.—late according to the schedule, early considering how these things often unfold—Vladeck took a seat at a table with two men to his left and four to his right. All prepared to address the House Judiciary Committee.

Stirring the Pot

Like other American University experts in their fields, Vladeck often is asked to testify before Congress. It’s an honor bestowed to only a minute percentage of academics nationwide, and Vladeck takes the responsibility seriously.

“Academics, especially academics who are in Washington, have an obligation to do what they can to [assist] all branches of government,” said Vladeck, who has appeared three times. “To the extent that having people like me get up there helps the members stir the pot, then we’re doing our job.”

School of Public Affairs professor James Thurber has testified before at least five Congressional committees. As director of SPA’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, he has a close relationship with many staffers and legislators on the hill.

“The last time I appeared before the rules committee, David Dreier was chair,” Thurber says. “He’s an old friend. His staff director Hugh Halpern, SPA/BA ’91, MA ’92, is a former student of mine. [Rep.] Jim McGovern, CAS/BA ’81, SPA/MPA ’84, was on the panel from AU. In that room there were seven other students that I’ve had. At the very beginning of the session it became humorous because Dreier asked Hugh, ‘What grade did you get from Thurber?’”

The mood was light that day, but the gravity of testifying never escapes Thurber.

“In my discipline, I think the university, and certainly my center, like to be involved in issues related to Congress,” he said. “It certainly helps me in my visibility and credibility. The media come back to you on that issue for the rest of your career.”

Theater or Gotcha?

The subject before Chairman John Conyers’s (D-Mich.) committee on Vladeck’s day was the Espionage Act and legal and constitutional issues raised by WikiLeaks. In the weeks following the Web site’s publication of hundreds of classified cables from U.S. diplomats around the world, many in Congress wondered if the 93-year-old statute could be used to charge WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.

That’s one question Vladeck was asked to help explore. As each witness read an opening statement, people filed in and out of room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, just across Independence Avenue from the Capitol. Virtually everyone in the gallery was typing, texting, or Tweeting away on their phone. A few dinosaurs jotted down notes using a pen and paper. At tables along the wall reporters pecked at their laptop keyboards, seldom glancing up.

Vladeck was the fifth to read his prepared text. As he spoke into a microphone, his image broadcast on two flatscreens hanging from each side wall, a few members of the committee might even have been paying attention.

“The first time it’s disconcerting,” he said of the general air of disinterest that permeates many hearing rooms. “What you get used to is the opening statements are really there for the record. One way to look at it is sometimes the same thing happens in the classroom.”

After his seven-minute statement, which focused on five flaws of the Espionage Act as currently written and suggestions on how to rectify them, Conyers, the 22-term legend sitting on the highest chair in the middle of the room, leaned forward.

“You’ve left us with some very big challenges Professor Vladeck,” he said. “We appreciate it very much.”

Vladeck was fortunate—lawmakers aren’t always so cordial toward their guests. School of Communication professor Rhonda Zaharna testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on February 27, 2003—an emotionally charged time just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“I got grilled because I came up with this radical notion, it was radical at the time, that if the American soldiers are not trained in culture they’re going to be walking into a cultural landmine,” Zaharna says. “I was hearing all of these things that the American soldiers would be greeted as liberators. I really had my doubts.”

Apparently, the then chairman of the committee and now vice president, Joe Biden, also had his.

“Biden jumped all over me,” she recalls. “You do your best to hold your ground. Afterwards he came and sat down with me for 15 minutes. We had a personal conversation and he was such a gentleman, but boy did he drag me over the coals. I later had [a reporter] from Germany ask me about the incident.”

The tone of the hearings—and the showmanship displayed by members—often are directly proportional to the level of media coverage.

“I appeared before the Senate Rules Committee on lobbying reform, I was helping Senator Obama and Senator McCain and they appeared just before me,” Thurber says. “The room was electric. All the members were there and all were asking questions. If you’re in some committee that doesn’t have C-SPAN, doesn’t have a hot button issue, half the members aren’t listening, half aren’t there.

“Sometimes [staffers] tell you what questions they’re going to ask ahead of time. Sometimes it’s like Shakespeare—it’s theatre. They know what’s going to happen, I know what’s going to happen. Other times it’s ‘gotcha’ testimony, like with the BP CEO or the tobacco industry.”

Luckily for Vladeck, the WikiLeaks hearing was relatively tame. The final witness was Ralph Nader, whose testimony barreled through the time limit prompting at least one congressman to cut him off. Undeterred, Nader continued speaking over the loud objections of the member.

Following a recess for a procedural vote in the full House, a common occurrence during committee hearings, Vladeck and the other witnesses fielded 11 or 12 questions from the smattering of members present. Just before two, the proceedings were adjourned.

“There was a pretty good back and forth,” Vladeck said of the question and answer session. “Our job when we’re testifying is to be of use to the members, and I think we did that.”