Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the refusal of Republicans to act in a non-partisan way has hobbled his plan for a “truth commission” that would examine alleged Bush administration abuses.
In a Senate floor speech Thursday, the Vermont Democrat acknowledged that his plan could not move forward as he intended unless all sides approached the inquiry into ex-President George W Bush’s expansive claims to executive power with objectivity and fair-mindedness.
Leahy insisted that he had not abandoned his commission idea, but was “not interested in a panel comprised of partisans intent on advancing partisan conclusions. ... I regret that Senate Republicans have approached this matter to date as partisans. That was not my intent or focus. Indeed, it will take bipartisan support in order to move this forward.”
On Monday, Leahy confided to a group of Vermonters that his “truth commission” is “not going to happen” because not a single a Republican would support it, according to journalist and author Charlotte Dennett, who attended the meeting. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Leahy Bails on Truth Commission Plan.”]
On Thursday, a senior Leahy staffer did not dispute any of the comments Leahy was reported to have made to the Vermont group. But the staffer told me that Leahy is still serious about trying to attract Republican support for his commission idea.
In the floor statement, Leahy said, “I continue to call on Republicans to recognize that this is not about partisan politics. It is about being honest with ourselves as a country. We need to move forward together.”
But if bipartisan support is what it will take to get a truth commission off the ground, it’s likely not going to happen – and Leahy is well aware of that. Republicans are against the idea of any investigation of Bush’s “war on terror” policies, whether by a truth commission or a special prosecutor.
The Leahy staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if the truth commission does not come to fruition, that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be oversight into the Bush administration’s policies through “more traditional means,” such as congressional hearings.
The staffer said Leahy has not introduced formal legislation for a truth commission, and it’s unknown if he ever will.
Though the Republicans surely have sought to obstruct any comprehensive inquiry into Bush’s policies, many Democrats also have been lukewarm about the idea.
Aides to more than a dozen Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House, whom I have spoken to over the past week, told me lawmakers are simply not interested in an investigation into the Bush administration no matter what form it takes.
Those aides spoke on the condition that I would not disclose their names or the names of the lawmakers they work for so as not to anger the progressive base of the Democratic Party.
In his Thursday floor statement, Leahy noted that new evidence has only deepened concerns that Bush abused his presidential powers.
“In the months and years following 9/11, driven by an inflated view of executive power, the Bush-Cheney administration compromised many of the very laws and protections that are the heart of our democracy,” Leahy said. “Their policies, which condoned torture, extraordinary renditions and the warrantless wiretapping of Americans, have left a stain on America’s reputation in the world.
“In recent weeks, we have also seen a few more opinions previously issued by the [Justice Department’s] Office of Legal Counsel after 9/11 that had been kept secret until now. ... These opinions sought to excuse policies that trample upon the Constitution and our duly enacted legal protections.
“These opinions arise from an arrogant rationale that the President can do anything he wants to do, that the President is above the law. The last President to make that claim was Richard Nixon. We saw the results of that policy in Watergate. It was through efforts like the Church Committee that we revised our laws and moved forward. In my view, it is time to do so again.”
Those Justice Department’s legal opinions – many drafted by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo – asserted that President Bush had virtually unlimited powers to wage the “war on terror” and could ignore traditional constitutional rights, including the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and a free press.
“The country will need to have an honest discourse about what happened and what went wrong,” Leahy said. “I continue to feel strongly that a Commission of Inquiry would provide us the best nonpartisan setting in which to undertake that study and national conversation.”
In February, Leahy first proposed the idea of a “truth and reconciliation commission” as a way of probing the Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies, including torture of detainees at military prisons operated by the U.S.
Back then, Leahy, a former prosecutor, told students at Georgetown Law School that although President Barack Obama was unsupportive of the idea of “looking backwards” “many Americans feel we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong. ...
“We need to be able to read the page before we turn it.”
Early last month, Leahy held a hearing, entitled “Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry,” where he heard from witnesses who testified about the pros and cons of setting up a special committee to investigate Bush-era abuses. But his idea drew little enthusiasm from his own committee and was treated contemptuously by some Republicans.
Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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This story was published on April 3, 2009.