Republicans argue that the 'dangerous idea' of setting up a fact-finding commission will merely lead to a Washington witch hunt.
Democrats want Bush policies investigated
WASHINGTON // Congressional Democrats this week offered their strongest endorsement yet of a full-scale investigation into the legality of various Bush administration counterterrorism policies, with some suggesting that top officials could face criminal prosecution. The Senate judiciary committee on Wednesday held a hearing to discuss the possibility of establishing a so-called "truth commission", or an outside independent body that would investigate an array of controversial Bush-era policies, from warrantless wiretapping to harsh interrogation techniques that many have equated to torture. Democrats voiced their support for some sort of bipartisan panel to scrutinise what they called abuses of executive power, and to determine if any laws had been broken. Republicans remained firmly opposed to a probe that they believe would turn into a partisan witch-hunt. The hearing comes just after Barack Obama's administration released secret documents revealing legal opinions - which have been criticised by members of both parties - that served as the underpinning for many of the most contentious policies of George W Bush's "war on terror". Mr Obama, for his part, has repudiated several Bush policies since taking office, including ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp within a year and outlawing harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, which simulates the experience of drowning. But he has given mixed signals on his support for a formal investigation. While he has maintained that "nobody is above the law", he has also said he would rather implement his own policies and move on. This week's hearing was called by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's Democratic chairman, who said in his opening statement that "nothing did more to damage America's place in the world than the revelation that our great nation stretched the law and the balance of executive power to authorise torture". "We shouldn't be afraid to look at what we've done or to hold ourselves accountable, as we do other nations when they make mistakes," Mr Leahy said. "We can't turn the page, unless we read the page." Mr Leahy said his call for an independent, non-partisan inquiry represents the middle ground between those who do not want to investigate the past, and others, such as Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the US House of Representatives, who said last month on a political talk show that she "absolutely" supports a full-on criminal investigation. Mr Leahy, and his fellow Democrats on the committee, including Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, did not rule out the idea of eventual prosecution in the courts. "There may be cases that require prosecution, and I would not want a commission of inquiry to preclude that. Those who clearly violate the law could be prosecuted - should be prosecuted," said Mr Feingold, noting that the panel should consider pardoning "low-level" participants, or officers who were merely carrying out orders. John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, however, called a fact-finding commission a "bad idea", adding that his Democratic colleagues, who seemed so sure of its success, were essentially "asking us to believe in the tooth fairy". A witness called by Republicans to provide testimony, David Rivkin, who served in the justice department under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, opposed the commission on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, calling it a "dangerous idea" to launch an investigation that would be more appropriately conducted by the justice department or by Congress. "It is extremely troubling, and must be strongly resisted by all those concerned with protecting the Constitution's fabric," Mr Rivkin said. "The very decision to initiate what amounts to a criminal investigation - whether or not it is formally designated as such - is too weighty to be outsourced to commissions." Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, likened the idea of a truth commission to a "fishing expedition". But he strongly endorsed possible efforts by the justice department to look into the policies of the Bush administration, which he has criticised. "You have a department of justice, which is fully capable of doing an investigation. They are not going to pull any punches on the prior administration," Mr Specter said, adding, however, that he "would not mind looking backward if there is a reason to do so". "If there's torture - torture is a violation of our law - go after them," he said. "If there's reason to believe that these department officials knowingly gave the president cover for things they know not to be right and sound, go after them." The policies of the Bush administration were thrust back into the spotlight this week when Eric Holder, the attorney general, released nine secret legal memos that were used after the September 11 attacks to expand executive powers and authorise controversial programmes such as warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. Several of the memos were written by John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general who authored the now infamous opinion known by some as the "torture memo", which the Bush administration often cited as justification for its harsh interrogations. The justice department this week announced plans to release even more secret documents from the Bush years and is also expected to release a long-awaited internal report on whether some of its attorneys - including Mr Yoo - violated professional standards in issuing their legal opinions. John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives' judiciary committee, has introduced separate legislation for a truth commission. And the Senate select intelligence committee revealed last month it was launching its own inquiry into the CIA's detention and interrogation practices. On Wednesday the Democratic senators of the judiciary committee mulled whether any future truth commission should have subpoena power or the ability to grant immunity to those who testify before it. Among the witnesses invited to the hearing by Democrats was Thomas Pickering, ambassador to the United Nations under George HW Bush, who said immunity should only be used in "very limited circumstances". Mr Pickering also said the commission should "stand above politics" and keep its proceedings public whenever possible. "We must as a country take stock of where we have been and determine what was and is not acceptable, what should not have been done, and what we will never do again," Mr Pickering said. "It is my sincere hope that this commission will confront and reject the notion, still powerful in our midst, that these policies are proper choices that could be implemented again in the future." firstname.lastname@example.org