Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called today for the creation of an expansive, independent commission to allow for the airing of possible Bush-era wrongdoings.
In a speech at Georgetown University, Leahy suggested the commission could have subpoena power and the authority to grant immunity from prosecution. He told reporters afterward that he envisions a panel that's bipartisan and looks at a wide variety of topics, including the Iraq war and politicization at the Department of Justice.
Others, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), have made similar proposals. Leahy’s comments (video from C-SPAN here) were his first endorsement of such an idea, and he would have a key role in shaping such a proposal because of his committee’s jurisdiction.
“We need to get to the bottom of what happened and why,” Leahy said. “The reason we do that is so that it’ll never happen again. One path to that goal would be a reconciliation process—a truth commission.”
President Barack Obama has not signaled much support for such a proposal, preferring to focus on implementing his own agenda. Leahy said he had not consulted the administration or Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. before speaking today. A White House spokesman declined to comment. A Republican spokesman also had no comment.
Leahy rejected the idea that Congress should move on.
“We shouldn’t abandon seeking ways of providing accountability for what’s happened in the past during a dangerous and disastrous diversion from American law and values, and I don’t want the focus to go off that,” he said. “Many Americans feel we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong. I agree. We need to be able to read the page before we turn the page.”
Some topics he said he would like to see investigated: the firing of U.S. attorneys, the treatment of detainees, and the use of waterboarding. Asked by a reporter if he would also want the commission to look at issues such as the Iraq war, he said he would. “There were lies told to the American people all the way back through. There were a lot of policies based on those lies. So let’s go back to them, find out what the lies were,” he said.
Leahy invoked the experiences of South Africa and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid, and of Greensboro, N.C., and a commission established there to investigate a 1979 massacre. He also drew a comparison with the Church Committee that investigated federal surveillance of civilians during the Vietnam War.
He did not suggest any individuals to lead the commission he was proposing but said its members should be people who are “universally recognized as fair-minded and without any axe to grind.”
And he qualified his endorsement of the idea by saying it would need board support to be successful. “We need to see if there’s interest in Congress and in the new administration. We would need to work through concerns about classified information and claims about executive privilege,” he said. “Most of all, we need to see if the American people are ready to take this step.”
UPDATE: A response from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), ranking GOP member of the House Judiciary Committee:
“No good purpose is served by continuing to persecute those who served in the previous Administration. President Obama promised to usher in an era of 'change' and bipartisan harmony. Unfortunately, the continued effort by some Democrats to unjustly malign former Bush Administration officials is politics as usual.
“We have already had a thorough investigation into the Justice Department, including a two year inquiry led by Democrats in Congress and an official investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General. The Inspector General made recommendations to prevent future wrongdoing and those recommendations have already been implemented. 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.”