February 9, 2009 – The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposal to launch a “truth commission” to investigate the Bush administration’s anti-terror programs and other matters got a lukewarm response Monday from President Barack Obama, who said he would rather “get it right moving forward.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the primary goal of the commission would be to learn the truth rather than prosecute former officials, but said the inquiry should reach far beyond looking for misdeeds at the Justice Department under Bush to include matters of Iraq prewar intelligence and the Defense Department.
Leahy outlined his suggestion for a “truth and reconciliation” commission during a speech at Georgetown University Monday.
“I’m doing this not to humiliate people or punish people but to get the truth out,” he said.
The president, during an evening news conference, sounded cool to the idea.
“Nobody’s above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back,” said Obama. “I will take a look at Senator Leahy’s proposal but my general orientation is to say, let’s get it right moving forward.”
The panel the senator envisions would be modeled after one that investigated the apartheid regime in South Africa. It would have subpoena power but would not bring criminal charges, he said.
Among the matters Leahy wants investigated by such a commission are: the firings of U.S. attorneys, treatment and torture of terror suspect detainees, and the authorization of warrantless wiretapping.
“Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened” during the Bush administration, Leahy said.
Some Democrats have called for criminal investigations of those who authorized certain controversial tactics in the war on terror. Republicans have countered that such decisions made in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks should not be second-guessed.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said no good purpose can be served by Leahy’s suggestion, and called it a political scheme “to unjustly malign former Bush administration officials.”
A long-running commission-style inquiry could help Democrats politically, if it kept reminding voters of unpopular decisions made by Bush and his supporters.
Yet some Democrats in Congress have already suggested that the current criminal investigation into the firing of U.S. attorneys may serve as a shield to prevent damaging facts about Republican officials from coming to light.
“We need to be able to read the page before we turn the page,” Leahy said. “We need to come to a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the government created a 9/11 commission to examine failures within government antiterror efforts.
Leahy said that commission was hampered by a lack of cooperation from the administration, and he would like a new commission to have access to everything they needed.
He said he was offering the idea to see how much support it had.
“We need to see whether the American people are ready to take this path,” he said, adding that he did not have anyone in particular in mind to lead the commission, but wanted “people with real credibility.”