Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) made an eloquent case in The Boston Globe on Sunday for why the United States needs the “commission of inquiry” he’s proposed to get at the truth of how torture and abuse became accepted U.S. policy and practice.
Referring to the abusive interrogation techniques used on detainees, Leahy wrote:
The techniques are wrong and their supposed legal rationale is just as bad. The idea that the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel would be used to contort our laws on subjects as serious as torture is appalling. The rationalization of these memos showed a willingness to ignore legal requirements as long as there is no clear mechanism of enforcement. These memoranda seem calculated to provide legal cover – a legal free pass – for these unlawful policies. The Justice Department was apparently being used to immunize government officials to conduct torture by defining it down and building in legal loopholes.
The apparent predetermined outcome of these legal memos raises the question of where the demand for this outcome and for approving these policies arose. Press accounts indicate that these were not the results of requests from CIA officers on the ground and in the field, but arose through pressure from senior administration officials in Washington.
Leahy’s truth commission could certainly get at those questions. But, as civil rights advocates and even some congressional staff privately acknowledge, so could a serious, focused investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs. It could reveal exactly the evidence he’s seeking, which in turn would reveal whether the conduct was criminal, as some allege, or merely shoddy lawyering and bad public policy.
When he held a hearing on his truth commission idea, Leahy faced an assortment of objections from Republicans and their witnesses about how Congress shouldn’t delegate its oversight power to an unaccountable commission that’s not authorized to sit in judgment of public officials or to bring prosecutions. (As I wrote before, Republicans at the hearing — including the newly-minted Pennsylvania Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter — made a powerful case that if laws were broken, the perpetrators should be prosecuted, not just analyzed by some toothless commission.)
Presumably, Leahy and his colleagues — and Attorney General Eric Holder, for that matter — don’t think there’s sufficient evidence yet that the acts involves were criminal. But a focused Senate Judiciary Committee investigation — along the lines of the one conducted by the Senat Armed Services Committee and now being undertaken by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — could reveal both “what happened and why” and what more, if anything, should be done about it.
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