WASHINGTON — The chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday called for a bipartisan "truth and reconciliation" commission to investigate potential wrongdoing by Bush administration officials in the war on terrorism.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said such an inquiry by well-qualified experts is needed to provide the public with a full and detailed accounting of the facts, even though President Obama has indicated that he does not want to engage in widespread criminal investigations of former Bush administration officials, CIA agents and others who carried out their orders. Among the possible issues he cited: the Justice Department's support for warrantless surveillance, coercive interrogation techniques, and the politicization of the hirings and firings of prosecutors.
Leahy's House counterpart, Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), has sponsored legislation calling for a similar commission and enlisted at least 16 Democrats to support it.
In a speech to Georgetown University students, Leahy described such a commission as a middle ground between those who want criminal investigations and those who say the Obama administration and its Justice Department need to move on and not dwell on possible wrongdoing by their predecessors. He said it would not assess blame or try to prove criminal violations.
But Leahy said the investigation should be thorough and wide-ranging, backed by the power to subpoena witnesses and grant immunity from prosecution, except in cases of perjury.
"The president is right that we need to focus on fixing the problems that exist and improving the future for hardworking Americans. I wholeheartedly agree and expect the judiciary committee and the Senate to act accordingly," Leahy said. "But that does not mean that we should abandon seeking ways to provide accountability for what has been a dangerous and disastrous diversion from American law and values."
Leahy said he has not yet discussed his proposal with Senate colleagues, identified specific individuals for such a commission or even settled on a blueprint of what he would like to see accomplished. He said a good model would be the reconciliation commission enacted in South Africa after apartheid, in which blanket immunity was granted to former officials in order to get to the truth of what happened.
"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 added.
Leahy's judiciary committee colleague Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said he would lobby for such a commission.
"Chairman Leahy today summed up a belief shared by millions of Americans: that we need to 'get the truth out' about the damage done to this country under the Bush administration and what we now must do to repair it," Whitehouse said.
At his Monday evening news conference, Obama said he could not comment in detail on Leahy's proposal because he did not know the details. He stressed that although Bush administration officials could be prosecuted "if there are clear instances of wrongdoing," he prefers not to dwell on past actions.
"I will take a look at Sen. Leahy's proposal," Obama said. "But my general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward."
A spokesman for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on the panel, which oversees the Justice Department, declined to comment but cited previous Specter remarks, in which he said he favored Obama's approach of not looking "backwards but to look forwards."
"If every administration started to reexamine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it," Specter said recently. "This is not Latin America."
One ranking Republican on the House side blasted Leahy's proposal as unnecessary and politically divisive.
"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 (R-Texas), adding that congressional Democrats and the Justice Department's own inspector general have already investigated the department and implemented reforms.
In recent months, many legal experts have predicted that the Obama administration will have to launch some kind of "reckoning" of Bush administration actions in response to public pressure.
"We can't just move on. I really believe as the dust settles that the only way to prevent abuses of power from happening again is to name them as crimes if they are crimes," Karen Greenberg, director of the New York University Center on Law and Security, said of Leahy's proposal.
"I think that it's probably a good baseline for what we can hope for: knowing what happened and, even if you don't prosecute, attaching names to policies that violated the law or moral and ethical standards."