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 (BushTruthCommission.com) with a petition urging Congress to act.
There have been similar rumblings in the House from Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).
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.
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 why...so 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.
Democrats.com 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.