Going Rogatory: How a Congressional Committee Might Subpoena Julian Assange

Back in 2013, we discussed the possibility that a congressional committee could subpoena Edward Snowden, a U.S. citizen who had fled the country with a lot of defense and intelligence secrets and was living (and still lives) as Mr. Putin’s guest in Russia. As I noted then, congressional committees can attempt to obtain documents or testimony overseas through the use of letters rogatory or requests for legal assistance under applicable treaties, though these are far from guaranteed methods of success. As far as I know, no congressional committee even attempted to subpoena Snowden.

With calls for congressional investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, one or more committees may now face the issue of attempting to subpoena Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks and a key witness in any such investigation. Attempting to secure Assange’s testimony may be even more challenging than trying to get Snowden’s because Assange is not a U.S. citizen and he resides in the sovereign territory of one country (Ecuador) located in another (the UK). Specifically, Assange lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Before getting into how a committee might attempt to procure Assange’s testimony, it should be noted that the committee would be wise to get authorization from its chamber to seek information abroad. As Mort Rosenberg explains in his forthcoming book, such authorization has traditionally been the first step in requesting international assistance to obtain information:

Since 1974 ten special congressional investigating committees have been vested with authority to request the judicial assistance of U.S. courts to take depositions or access information in foreign jurisdictions through the vehicle of letters rogatory and to seek other means of international assistance in gathering information in foreign countries.

Morton Rosenberg, When Congress Comes Calling: A Study of the Principles, Practices, and Pragmatics of Legislative Inquiry (anticipated January 2017 publication). Such authorization, to be sure, is not a magic wand that entitles the committee to all (or any) foreign discovery it desires. It may not even be legally necessary, but it does give the committee an “imprimatur of authority to utilize formal judicial and international treaty processes,” as well as serve “to give legitimacy to less formal ventures to obtain necessary information.” Id.

Thus, whether the investigation is conducted by a special committee or a permanent committee, it makes sense for the House or Senate to adopt a resolution specifically authorizing the committee in question to use means of international assistance to obtain information overseas. The committee also needs deposition authority (if it doesn’t have it already) since Assange and other foreign witnesses almost certainly cannot be compelled to travel to the United States to participate in a hearing. Finally, for reasons explained below, the committee should be authorized to effectuate service by means other than traditional personal service.

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Could Congress Subpoena Snowden?

So let’s say a congressional committee wanted to take evidence from fugitive extraordinaire Edward Snowden. What options would it have?

First, the committee could issue a subpoena to Snowden, just as it would any witness. Although I don’t know of any case directly on point, it seems to me that a congressional subpoena to a U.S. citizen would be effective regardless of where the citizen is located. See generally Blackmer v. United States, 284 U.S. 421, 437 (1932)  (“Nor can it be doubted that the United States possesses the power inherent in sovereignty to require the return to this country of a citizen, resident elsewhere, whenever the public interest requires it, and to penalize him in case of refusal.”). If Snowden were properly served with a subpoena to testify at a congressional hearing, he could be held in contempt if he failed to appear.

Legally, I don’t think the committee would need any special authority to subpoena Snowden in a foreign jurisdiction as long as it could figure out a way to serve him with the subpoena. Although personal service is the traditional method of serving congressional subpoenas, one might argue that electronic service is adequate under these extraordinary circumstances. But even if service can be accomplished, the committee would still have the practical problem that Snowden could not be punished for contempt until he returns to the United States.

This brings us to another option. As discussed in this CRS memo from 1997, congressional committees have from time to time been authorized to take depositions abroad and seek other means of international assistance in gathering information abroad. The memo, which was written as the House was considering a resolution authorizing extraterritorial investigative activity in connection with the investigation of campaign finance irregularities, explains:

The Committee and its staff are not going to be able to barge into Jakarta or Beijing, set up shop and start subpoenaing foreign nationals or foreign government officials to testify under oath. Rather, the Committee will be given the opportunity to use the various international channels of access to foreign-held information. In the end, the degree of legal formality and difficulty encountered by the Committee if it seeks to hold hearings in a foreign country or to have depositions taken or written interrogation answered, will depend on the nature and sensitivity of the inquiry sought to be conducted which, in turn, will often determine the extent of international comity that will be accorded.

One procedure for obtaining international assistance in obtaining information is the use of letters rogatory, which ask a foreign court to use its own compulsory process to obtain testimony or documents from a witness. At least one congressional committee, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s, successfully used letters rogatory to obtain evidence overseas. Other committees, such as the Iran-Contra select committee, have been authorized to use them but did not actually do so. See George W. Van Cleve & Charles Tiefer, International Enterprises in Major Congressional Investigations: Lessons of the Iran-Contra Affair, 55 Mo. L. Rev. 43, 92 (1990).

Other methods of obtaining foreign assistance rely on treaty obligations to facilitate the service of process or the taking of evidence. A congressional committee can also seek a foreign government’s assistance as a matter of comity. The CRS memo describes how the October Surprise Task Force was able to obtain the cooperation of a number of foreign governments in obtaining documents and testimony relevant to its investigation, although, shockingly, “[t]he Government of Iran, contacted on numerous occasions through its Permanent Mission to the United Nations, denied the Task Force’s request to travel to Iran to conduct interviews.” The House Ethics Committee also found it difficult to obtain evidence during its “Korea-gate” investigation:

Key to the investigation was the role played by one witness, Kim Dong Jo, a former ROK official, who was not subject to compulsory committee process. In addition to the ROK’s reluctance to make the witness available, the Committee encountered difficulties with our Justice Department and the State Department, through which formal communications and negotiations with the ROK Government had to be channelled. Over a period of a year, the Committee, with the assistance of the House leadership, engaged in public education, Congressional pressure, negotiation, and finally Congressional reprisal.

As these examples illustrate, the key variable in these efforts in the cooperation of the foreign government. In the case of Russia, this is going to be a problem. The State Department website reports:

In July 2003, Russia unilaterally suspended all judicial cooperation with the United States in civil and commercial matters. The Russian Federation refuses to serve letters of request from the United States for service of process presented under the terms of the 1965 Hague Service Convention or to execute letters rogatory requesting service of process transmitted via diplomatic channels. The Russian Federation also declines to give consideration to U.S. requests to obtain evidence. While the Department of State is prepared to transmit letters rogatory for service or evidence to Russian authorities via diplomatic channels, in the Department’s experience, all such requests are returned unexecuted. Likewise requests sent directly by litigants to the Russian Central Authority under the Hague Service Convention are returned unexecuted.

This certainly raises questions whether a congressional committee could obtain Russian assistance to question Snowden. But it is at least conceivable that Russia, and its erratic president, would see advantage in cooperating with a congressional investigation into Snowden’s activities. They might prefer a congressional deposition of Snowden to permitting the executive branch to interview him.

In any event, you can’t know unless you ask.