House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers has renewed his call for a special prosecutor to conduct a criminal inquiry into “war on terror” policies of the Bush administration, including whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on alleged terrorist detainees violated international and federal laws against torture.
The recommendation comes amid signs from other senior Democrats that they are shying away from a full-scale investigation, whether by a “truth commission” or a special prosecutor, into possible crimes committed under the authority of President George W. Bush. Congressional Republicans have been adamantly opposed to any inquiry.
Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, included his recommendation to Attorney General Eric Holder in a final report that was quietly released on April 2. Conyers made a similar recommendation in an earlier draft of his report, but this final version includes additional evidence that has surfaced in recent months to support his call for a special prosecutor.
“The Attorney General should appoint a Special Counsel to determine whether there were criminal violations committed pursuant to Bush Administration policies that were undertaken under unreviewable war powers, including enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless domestic surveillance,” Conyers’s report said. “In this regard, the report firmly rejects the notion that we should move on from these matters.”
While issuing a statement that accompanied the report, Conyers did not resubmit his formal request for a special prosecutor that he made last year when he and 55 other House Democrats signed a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Not unexpectedly, Mukasey – a staunch defender of Bush’s theories about expansive presidential powers – ignored the letter.
While Republicans have said they are against any effort to probe the Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies, Democrats also have been cool to the idea. Indeed, in early January, Conyers introduced a resolution, H.R. 104, to establish a national commission on presidential war powers and civil liberties. Two months later, the resolution had attracted a mere 27 co-sponsors.
Still, the final version of Conyers’s report, entitled “Reining in the Imperial Presidency: Lessons and Recommendations Relating to the Presidency of George W. Bush,” may create some new momentum for holding the Bush administration accountable.
Of the 50 recommendations in the final version of the 541-page report, the appointment of a special prosecutor is the first, with the suggestion that a criminal inquiry should be conducted alongside hearings by a “blue ribbon” panel.
In a statement posted on his Web site, Conyers said the Obama administration needs to follow in the footsteps of a magistrate in Spain who has authorized prosecutors there to investigate possible war crimes by six Bush administration officials who helped create the framework for the torture policies.
"President Obama has taken immediate action to right many of the Bush administration’s wrongs including pledges to disavow torture and close the prison at Guantanamo," Conyers said. “However, the administration still has much to do to restore the rule of law to its rightful place.
“A nonpartisan, independent accounting of what happened must take place, and the new administration must do more to roll back its predecessor’s policies on issues ranging from signing statements to the state secrets privilege."
Civil liberties and human rights organizations as well as numerous progressive groups have been pressuring Congress to back a criminal investigation into the Bush administration, particularly in light of evidence that has surfaced which demonstrates the Bush administration sanctioned torture.
The new version of Conyers’s report adds more details about the alleged crimes of the Bush administration and cites international laws against torture that require the U.S. to immediately launch a wide-ranging probe to determine whether torture laws were broken:
“The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (Torture Convention), ratified by the United States in 1994, appears to require the United States to investigate possible torture committed within its jurisdiction,” Conyers’s report says.
“Moreover, the statement of Susan J. Crawford, the convening authority for military commissions, that: 'We tortured [Mohammed al-Qahtani],' along with other public materials that describe aspects of that interrogation, provide 'reasonable grounds' to believe that torture was committed there.”
In an interview with the Washington Post earlier this year, Crawford said that she would not allow al-Qahtani’s prosecution to move forward because his interrogation met the legal definition of torture and as such the evidence against him was tainted.
On the same day Conyers released the updated version of his report, his counterpart on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, said in a floor statement that he still favored a “truth commission” to probe the Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies, but expressed concern that Republicans were balking at such an inquiry.
"I regret that Senate Republicans have approached this matter to date as partisans,” Leahy said. “It will take bipartisan support in order to move this forward.”
Congress and the Obama administration are facing pressure from progressive organizations and civil and human rights groups for a serious investigation. Two weeks ago, the ACLU called on Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a probe into the Bush administration's torture practices.
“The fact that such crimes have been committed can no longer be doubted or debated, nor can the need for an independent prosecutor be ignored by a new Justice Department committed to restoring the rule of law,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said.
“Given the increasing evidence of deliberate and widespread use of torture and abuse, and that such conduct was the predictable result of policy changes made at the highest levels of government, an independent prosecutor is clearly in the public interest,” Romero said.
Leahy has said he is against a criminal inquiry because it could take years, but Conyers indicated that a public inquiry and a criminal probe could go forward simultaneously.
“The fact that Congress is pursuing responsible oversight should not impact any criminal investigations, just as the work of the Ervin Committee did not limit the prerogatives of Special Counsels [Archibald] Cox or [Leon] Jaworski” in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Conyers said. “As a matter of fact, information gleaned from one review could reinforce and galvanize others.
“While I understand there is a powerful desire to simply move on and focus on the many large issues facing us, we simply cannot sweep these matters under the rug of history without addressing them head on,” Conyers said.
Congress has just left Washington for a two-week recess.
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.