Monday, April 27, 2009

President Obama jabbed a political hornet’s nest last week when he suggested that Congress might establish a bipartisan review panel to look into the authorization of extraordinary interrogation methods during George W. Bush’s presidency. Now the White House and some congressional Democrats want the issue to go away. “They are really hoping this dies down,” one senior Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the situation told us. We wholeheartedly agree.

The politicization of policy differences has been a fact of life in Washington since the Watergate era, but in the past one could reasonably expect that such political warfare would end when a new administration commenced. Investigatory panels, such as the “Commission of Inquiry” called for by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, would represent an unprecedented escalation of political warfare in the American system. Proponents of such tribunals exhibit a spirit of political retribution not seen since the end of the Civil War.

There is little doubt that the ultimate target of such investigations would be former President Bush, who some in the far left of the Democratic Party consider to be a war criminal deserving prosecution. Those who had previously advocated that Mr. Bush be impeached for his alleged crimes may consider this as a way to pursue their version of justice after the fact. But it would inject poison into the body politic that would take a generation to fade.

The Democratic leadership seems to understand that such investigations would be a Pandora’s box, distracting the public from the Democrats’ legislative agenda and taking unpredictable turns.

The complexities of such witch hunts are illustrated by the thorny question of what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, knew regarding CIA secret prisons and interrogation techniques, and when did she know it. The Washington Post reported in 2007 that Mrs. Pelosi and other lawmakers attended a briefing in 2002 at which they were “given a virtual tour of the CIA’s overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.” She admitted in a letter in 2007 that she “was briefed on interrogation techniques the administration was considering using in the future” and in February said she only knew about them “in the abstract.” Mrs. Pelosi has called for a “truth commission,” so perhaps this matter could find its way onto the agenda.

There is no value in pursuing any of these tribunals, which would quickly take on the theatrical attributes of show trials. They would be a gift to America’s enemies who have fought for years to delegitimize our conduct of the war on terrorism, and they represent a distinct danger to a polity already riven by deep distrust. Any “truth and reconciliation” commission would produce neither truth nor reconciliation. The desire to punish political leaders retroactively for policies that have already been reversed marks a new level of meanness in America’s political journey.

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