InfoMullet: Explaining Closed Door Hearings with Williams Testimony

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TLDRUpFront: With many questions in public about ‘closed door’ testimony, whether it’s fair, why that was being done this post can help clarify. When the House conducts any hearings relating to national security, sensitive communication means, or takes live testimony from high ranking national security officials, that testimony is always behind closed doors at first. This allows testimony to be reviewed and sensitive material redacted.  But the transcripts have been released in full copy, and we can use Special Adviser Williams case as an example of how this works.

FullContext in the Back:

Any time matters of national security, classified storage systems, sensitive communications in foreign affairs or when obtaining the live testimony of high-ranking national security personnel happens – it is the House rules that this be conducted behind closed doors in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF).

FullContext in the Back: 

For those who don’t understand why witnesses are first deposed in closed-door hearings. That’s the standard process in both the House and Senate when conducting inquiry into any matters relating to national security, intelligence, or that by its nature may be classified. You don’t know what a witness is going to say, you don’t know what questions a Committee Member may ask, and where that may lead.

You hold the testimony in private first, in accordance with the rules, so it can be vetted to ensure that there is proper handling of all classified materials and all members understand what can and cannot be shared.

Everything is still recorded, committee members of both parties are still present, witnesses are still sworn in and under oath. All materials are eventually released and redacted (Lawfare Blog has summaries of the several thousand pages of transcripts released so far by the House in comment of first link.) And if you’re not happy with the transcripts produced you can still process a FOIA request to seek further details and/or sue in the Federal court system. Judicial Watch is quite expert on that front for conservative causes.


Example Special Adviser Williams Testimony

We can examine this using Jennifer Williams closed-door testimony that has been released with few redacts. First for context William is Vice President’s Pence Special Adviser on Europe and Russia. She sat in on the 25 JUL call and took contemporaneous notes which were then formalized into a briefing provided to the Vice President’s briefing book, which is a procedure to keep top White House officials aware of all matters of relevance on a daily basis.

During her questioning, which was under oath she stated:

“Q: Okay. During the July 25 calI, did you have any concerns about the conversation that you heard between President Trump and President Zelensky?

A: I certainly noted that the mention of those specific investigations seemed unusual as compared to other discussions with foreign leaders.

Q: And why were they unusual?

A: I believed those references to be more political in nature and so that struck me as unusual.” (p129)

And on her reaction to the call:

“MR. HECK: You had no personal feeling response to that, given how you’ve characterized it?

WILLIAMS: Again, I would say that it struck me as unusual and inappropriate.

HECK: Ms. Williams, that’s not the question. How did it make you feel

WILLIAMS: I guess for me it shed some light on possible other motivations behind a security assistance hold.”(p149)

This is now the second highly credible witness (career FSO and aide to the Vice President) who has direct knowledge of the call, who memorialized the nature of the call at the time it occurred (for the VP’s daily briefing) and who has indicated the that the nature of the call seemed inappropriate, possibly political, at odds with other foreign leader calls and connected in their minds to the withholding of military aide. The first being Lt. Colonel Vindman who raised concerns with the NSC lawyer.

But if we look to the full released transcript of her statement we find in the opening text provides some clarification as to why these meetings are held under secure conditions. They are intended that all material will be declassified, declassified nature of the position and topics discussed, some may be classified. And if anything, does come up which is classified, the witness is supposed to stop, alert the committee to that, and then certain steps are made before classified material is discussed (such as noting where redaction need to begin.) In this case other than the procedural redaction up front, I couldn’t see any redaction throughout the document.

Here’s the relevant text:

“It is the committee’s expectation that neither questions asked of you, non-answers provided by you, will require discussion of any information that is currently on at any point could be properly classified under Executive Order 13526. You are reminded that EO-13526 states that, quote, “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, on fail to be declassified ” unquote, for the purpose of concealing any violations of law on preventing embarrassment of any person or entity.

If any of our questions can only be answered with classified information, please inform us of that fact before you answer the question and we can adjust accordingly. Today’s deposition is not being taken in executive session but, because of the sensitive and confidential nature of some of the topics and materials that will be discussed, access to the transcript of the deposition will be limited to the three committees in attendance. Under the House deposition rules, no Member of Congress nor any staff member can discuss the substance of the testimony that you provided today. You and your attorney will have an opportunity to review the transcript before it is released.”(p8-9)

Some has asked on the posts what I was sharing earlier, before these full testimonies were available and how those were obtained.

Unless I missed something the entirety of what we were receiving were the opening statements. Those are prepared in advance, contain the substantive content of the witness’s recollections/impressions/responses to the general nature of the inquiry. Because they are prepared in advance they can follow the “declassified” ruling (unless otherwise noted) and released (or leaked) on an expedited basis because it’s already a document.

Those were the only documents I ever saw during the closed-door portions and most of the reporting was pulled from those documents. Not from the Q&A itself. (Which is why as the Q&A gets released some of these new revelations are newsworthy. Had reporters known about Williams answers of “inappropriate” and “unusual” it would’ve made huge news.)


LawFareBlog’s summary, and links to full transcripts, of all House Committee Impeachment inquiries held prior to the start of the public process.

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