Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bush-Era "Truth Commission" Is Not Enough: Justice Requires Prosecutions

A couple of weeks ago, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate potential crimes of the Bush Administration: political prosecutions in the Justice Department, warrantless surveillance of Americans, the deceptions used to justify the invasion of Iraq, and torture (and homicide) at Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons around the world. Leahy said, "I don't want to embarrass anybody. I don't want to punish anybody. I just want the truth to come out so this never happens again." Leahy has suggested using the reconciliation commission enacted in South Africa after apartheid as a model and has set up a website ( with a petition urging Congress to act.

There have been similar rumblings in the House from Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

Reaction from national Republicans? 

Predictable and deceptive. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) says, "If every administration started to reexamine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it." And Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) says Congress should not "waste taxpayers' time and money on fruitless finger-pointing." 

Their statements show that both Specter and Smith continue to believe/pretend that no serious crimes were committed by the Bush administration and believe their constituents will not call them on it.

Reaction from the White House? 

Predictable and conservative. When President Obama was asked about investigating Bush officials, he gave the obligatory "nobody's above the law" response, before adding, "I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards." 

That is pretty much a non-answer--a punt back to Senator Leahy. We can expect the Obama administration to be too politically sensitive to lead on this issue, and that makes sense. The last thing they want is to be labeled as partisan witch-hunters. The good news is that the word "pardon" doesn't seem to be on anybody's mind. Obama probably just needs someone else to take the lead on this. I can't imagine him actually blocking a push to investigate.

Sam Stein, writing for the The Huffington Post, raises a hopeful point about Obama's response: "This path could create a curious situation for the Obama team, in which the president has committed his administration to prosecuting illegality and the Congress provides the evidence of such." 

The "curious situation" sounds like a no-brainer: If Leahy's Truth Commission uncovers evidence crimes--anyone think it won't?--then the criminals should be prosecuted.

No To Special Immunity

The problem is that Senator Leahy is waving around immunity from prosecution as one of the selling points for his commission. He is buying too much into the "look forward, not back backwards" mantra and confusing what that means. Leahy said, "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and that it never happens again."

If understanding "what happened and why" is all we do, then we can guarantee it will happen again. We will set a precedent for future presidents:
You may commit some of the worst crimes imaginable, and all we will do as a people is describe the crimes out loud and write about them in a report. Do whatever you like, because you will never, ever go to prison. 
Speaking of precedents, Richard Nixon said, infamously, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." Then President Ford pardoned him for "all offenses against the United States," and showed that Nixon was, in a practical manner, absolutely correct. It was a show of solidarity among the ruling class. Prison is for little people.

Besides, I think we have a pretty good idea of "what happened and why." The question is, will there now be justice? Will there be a reckoning? Will those who knowingly and repeatedly broke the law ever be held responsible? 

Yes To Justice

There is a better solution than a truth and reconciliation commission with immunity for those who testify. It's called a Special Prosecutor. 

Attorney General Eric Holder should appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute the Bush crimes we already know about. This approach would get to the bottom of "what happened and why" and uphold our laws. Holder doesn't need Congressional authorization to appoint a prosecutor. He doesn't even need Obama's authorization. It's already part of his job description as the nation's top law enforcement official. has an online petition urging Attorney General Holder to "prosecute any and all government officials who have participated in torture and other war crimes." They also have a page devoted to news about prosecuting Bush, Cheney et al.

It's a decent start. 

If Bush officials are ever made to pay for their crimes, it will be because the public's voice could no longer be ignored. Establishment politicians will always be uncomfortable putting any of their own on trial and in prison. It goes against all their instincts of class- and self-preservation. They will resist until resisting is more uncomfortable than acquiescing to justice. The test will be in how uncomfortable the public can make them.


Chris said...

Off with their heads! Let's get some torches and pitchforks and storm the Crawford ranch at midnight. We'll need a battering ram.

Better Than Machines said...

I think the Bushes actually sold the Crawford ranch. They didn't need it as a campaign prop anymore.

They can keep their heads. But they should go to prison.

Camp Papa said...

When listing potential crimes, let's not forget an investigation into what was done to former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

As Dr. King put it in my favorite quote from him, "Power at its best is Love implementing the demands of Justice. Justice at its best is Love correcting everything that stands against Love." Do we think that the Bush administration might have done anything that "stands against love?" If you will agree with me that civic "love" is evidenced by abiding by the constitution and international law, then I think you might also agree that some "correction" is in order.

delaine said...

How can Leahy or any other investigator launch a full and impartial investigation and say at the outset that no one will be punished ? The law is sacrosanct and should be our guide-even for our leaders. Especially for our leaders! Bush, Cheney, and their minions did wrong.The scope of that wrong must be told ! A price must be paid.A terrible precedent will be set if we do nothing. "The truth shall set you free."

Becky said...

Yeah, I think Obama's response sounds like he's totally open to prosecutions. Of course he can't say, "Let's get 'em!" especially with all that's going on.

Mason said...

I agree that the law should be fully applied to the previous administration, as well as the current one. However, prosecutions will understandably be delayed until after some major policy and spending debates/bills go through. The public approval of Obama and democrats is too good right now to spend their capital on prosecutions. I'd rather see it spent on health insurance reform and whatnot. I wouldnt be surprised if Obama waits until a second term to give the go ahead to Leahy or whoever to pursue the prosecutions. Obama himself will never be vocal about it one way or the other. -mason

Better Than Machines said...

I think that a "Truth Commission" can and should be separate from the Justice Department's prosecution of criminals in the Bush administration. Let Leahy's group turn up as many crimes as they like. (Just don't let them grant any sort immunity.)

Then let the Justice Department bring trials.

The knee-jerk reaction from conservatives will be that criminal proceedings--however they come about--are politically motivated. I say that FAILING to bring criminal charges would be politically motivated. With the evidence we already have, how else can we explain the lack of criminal trials other than by saying Democratic politicians don't want to dirty their hands and alter the political climate?

The premise of the conservatives' "witch hunt" argument is that BECAUSE the potential crimes were committed by high administration officials, prosecuting them is political witch hunting. It's just a new version of: "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."