Why Sen. Patrick Leahy Wants a "Truth Commission"

The focus would be on alleged detainee torture, domestic surveillance and other Bush-era secrets.

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George W. Bush has relocated back to his beloved Texas, of course, but in official Washington, all is not forgotten—or forgiven. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, for one, wants Congress to convene an independent, blue-ribbon commission to poke into some of the dark secrets and possible government wrongdoing of the Bush years: the alleged torture of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, controversial warrantless wiretapping, and the politicization of the hiring and firing of federal prosecutors.

A newly released series of Bush-era memos from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which asserted a broad vision of wartime executive powers that would have trampled traditional Constitutional protections, may help Leahy win converts to his cause. Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing today on potential commission formats. "We must not be afraid to look at what we have done, to hold ourselves accountable as we do other nations who make mistakes," Leahy said in his opening statement.

The whole idea of a "truth commission," predictably, is drawing howls from the right, while even some Democrats fret that Leahy's plan is damagingly divisive at a time when the nation has its hands full with immediate crises. Still, the senator from the land of Ben and Jerry's seems insistent on making the road rocky for some former members of the Bush administration. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and why," Leahy says. "The reason we do that is so that it'll never happen again."

At least 6 in 10 Americans agree, according to recent Gallup polling, reflecting the support by Democrats and independents for some form of accountability. But hauling former Bush administration officials—and perhaps even a Democrat or two—before the klieg lights would surely shatter any prospect for bipartisan harmony. The president says he's more interested in looking forward but is willing to prosecute those who may have committed crimes.

The alleged torture of prisoners and politicization of the Justice Department are obvious starting points, according to commission advocates. If those issues sound familiar, it's because several are already being investigated by the Obama Justice Department or Congress itself. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania says that Obama and Congress have sufficient authority to investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute wrongdoing without the need for a special panel.

Yet it's the complexity and breadth of the issues that call for an independent commission, supporters say. "Let the congressional committees focus on the daily business of legislation and oversight—the investigations of the past eight years require dedicated attention that's best fit for an outside body," says one Senate staffer.

Successful examples are the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, though their investigations weren't targeted toward a single administration. Critics of the Bush administration say the heavy secrecy with which it operated makes necessary a public airing of not only what happened to terrorist suspects but also of the policies that made it possible. "Because so much of what was done over the past eight years was done in secret," says Ron Suskind, the author of three books on the Bush administration, "there is a profound public mistrust of the official line—and that mistrust is well founded."

In the mid-1970s, the so-called Church Committee, headed by Sen. Frank Church, broke new ground when it exposed abuses by the FBI and CIA, such as illegal domestic surveillance and recruiting the mob for an assassination plot against Cuba's Fidel Castro. Frederick A. O. Schwarz, who served as the committee's chief legal counsel, sees relevant lessons from that episode. "When an administration undermines the rule of law," he says, "it undermines America's greatest strength."