- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

UPDATED:

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday called for a “truth commission” with subpoena powers to investigate a string of policies adopted by the Bush administration in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said the panel would be charged with laying out the facts on what the previous administration did on such policies as torture, the detention of suspected terrorists and the firing of U.S. attorneys seen as not supporting the Bush administration’s policies.

“Many Americans feel we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong. I agree,” Mr. Leahy said in an address at Georgetown University. “We need to be able to read the page before we turn the page.”

Mr. Leahy is the second prominent congressional Democrat to back an investigation into the practices of the Bush administration’s Justice Department. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, is a lead co-sponsor of a bill introduced in the House last month to create a “National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties.”

The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee called the effort “politics as usual” for Democrats bent on maligning former Bush administration officials with congressional probes.

“Rather than continuing to waste taxpayers’ time and money on fruitless finger-pointing, Congress should focus on the future and what we can do to help the American people during these difficult times,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.

But the calls present a politically delicate dilemma for the Obama administration, which has repudiated some of Mr. Bush’s terror-related legal policies but is wary of a full-scale probe of past practices that could ignite a bitter partisan clash.

The confirmation of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sparked a Senate floor fight over whether Mr. Holder had pledged not to consider prosecuting Bush administration officials over their terror and security policy rulings.

President Obama said he’d prefer to “get it right moving forward,” but would look at Mr. Leahy’s proposal.

“Nobody’s above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back,” Mr. Obama said during his prime-time press conference Monday.

Mr. Leahy presented his idea, which he said he is still developing, as a “middle ground” between a full-scale legal review of the past eight years and sweeping the Bush administration’s actions under the rug.

The Vermont Democrat said the effort could be patterned on the truth commissions established in South Africa to bring to light the abuses of the apartheid era. He said he wanted to look into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, the use of torture, the firing of the U.S. attorneys, and “areas where the oversight committees in Congress were lied to.”

“One path to that goal would be a reconciliation process, a truth commission,” he said.

“We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair-minded, without any axe to grind. … People would be told to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of conducting criminal indictments but to assemble the facts.”

The proposed commission, he said, could have subpoena powers to compel witnesses to testify and could offer immunity from prosecution in order to do its work. He said it might contain both presidential and congressional nominees, although he accused the Bush administration of “stonewalling” a similarly constituted panel created to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I’m doing this not to humiliate people or punish people, but to get the truth out so we don’t make the same mistakes again,” Mr. Leahy said.

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