Truth Commission’ Gains Currency Among Democrats

Posted April 22, 2009 at 6:43pm

House and Senate Democrats are warming to the idea of an independent “truth commission— on the Bush administration’s controversial definition of torture, a fact-finding body with at least limited amnesty powers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

President Barack Obama has sought to walk a political tightrope on the previous administration’s torture policies, looking to satisfy calls from his left to expose the authors of the policies and how they were developed, while at the same time avoiding the political quagmire of prosecuting those former officials.

But the release last week of the Bush administration’s torture memos, as well as reports by the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, has pushed the issue to the political forefront and set off one of the fiercest partisan fights of Obama’s young presidency.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has championed the idea of an independent commission similar to ones used in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, arguing that by giving those who come forward immunity from prosecution, the commission could avoid any partisan problems.

On Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she could support some sort of a commission as well.

“It might be further useful to have such a commission so that it removes all doubt that how we protect the American people is in a values-based way,— Pelosi said, adding that she also believed the panel could have some sort of limited amnesty authority.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Wednesday that Reid would be also open to the idea of an independent commission, calling it “an option he is willing to take a look at.—

Rank-and-file Democrats — particularly those from the party’s progressive wing, which has previously sought prosecutions of Bush administration officials — have also begun to back the proposal.

For instance, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said she would support a truth commission. “I am here to say, let’s have a truth commission. Let’s model it after the 9/11 commission. We can’t move forward as a nation — this is the United States of America. We tell the truth. We don’t hide behind lies,— Boxer said during an interview on MSNBC.

But Republicans remained adamantly opposed to the idea, charging that enough information has been released and that any further inquiries will cripple intelligence-gathering efforts.

“If we want our intelligence community to do nothing, then let’s keep it up,— Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said, calling any prosecution of defense and legal officials involved in interrogation “overly aggressive.—

“There are legal and political opinions that are done in every administration,— he added.

Hatch also said the creation of a truth commission would harm future intelligence gathering. “If we start playing around with disclosure on methods and information, we’re not going to get any information in the future,— he said.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) echoed Hatch.

“I am opposed to the commission idea because all of the facts are readily available to the Department of Justice. As I have said before, once the administration has a key to the front door, which they’ve had for several months, all they have to do is find the right filing cabinets and open them, which they’re already doing,— Specter said. “If there is evidence of criminality, then the attorney general has the full authority and should prosecute it. But going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics.—

Similarly, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) penned a letter to Obama on Wednesday urging him not to prosecute government officials who provided legal advice on detainee interrogations.

“Pursuing such prosecutions would, we believe, have serious negative effects on the candor with which officials in any administration provide their best advice, and would take our country in a backward-looking direction at a time when our detainee-related challenges demand that we look forward,— the letter warned.

Graham and McCain said Wednesday that they would also oppose creation of an independent commission.

But Leahy argued that revelations in the Bush administration’s torture memos and a set of Senate reports on the development of those policies are the kind of things that should be investigated by an independent commission that is not intent on prosecutions.

The Armed Services report, released Tuesday night, details how the Department of Defense began laying the groundwork for using harsh terrorist interrogation techniques as early as December 2001 and began training interrogators in the spring of 2002 — several months before the Justice Department began providing legal cover for the CIA to use such methods.

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Committee’s report, which was made public Wednesday afternoon, offered context for the Office of Legal Counsel decisions handed down between 2002 and 2007 that cleared the way for certain interrogation practices in the Bush administration.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chaired the Intelligence Committee last year, requested the compilation of “an unclassified narrative— from then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey in August 2008.

The finished product includes information from the Department of Justice, CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Counsel to the President.

The report notes, for example, that a May 2005 OLC opinion deemed waterboarding a permissible form of torture just months before Bush signed into law a bill sponsored by McCain that banned “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment— of prisoners.

“We now know that essential information was withheld from the Congress on many matters and decisions were made in secret by senior Bush administration officials to obscure the complete picture,— Rockefeller said in a statement.

The Intelligence Committee launched a full review of the CIA’s interrogation practices last month that is expected to take up the bulk of this year.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Leahy argued that a commission could ultimately help restore the standing of the nation in the international community by identifying those members of the previous administration who acted inappropriately.

“They were trying to steal the Constitution of the United States. And they’re trying to steal the law of the United States. They’re trying to steal the credibility of the United States and trying to steal the honor and morality of the United States,— Leahy said. “And I think that should be looked into just as much as somebody who might want to steal money from the United States. Money can get paid back … [but] once you lose honor, once you lose adherence to our Constitution, that takes a lot longer to get back.—