President Obama has declared that when it comes to investigating the national security policies of his predecessor, “generally speaking, I am more interested in looking forward than looking backwards.” That sentiment is not shared by his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill. In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that she “absolutely” supports the criminal investigation and potential prosecution of Bush officials, stating: “We have to have the facts. . . . We are unhappy about certain things; we anecdotally know about certain things. We will have the documentation of it, and we can go forward.” In the Senate, Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse declared: “When push comes to shove, we are the legislative branch of government. We have oversight responsibilities. And we don’t need the executive branch’s approval to look into these things.”
The investigative train left the station March 4 as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy convened the first hearing on his proposal for a “truth commission” to investigate the Bush administration. Leahy presented his proposed commission as a middle ground between those “who resist any effort to investigate the misdeeds of the recent past” and those “who say that, regardless of the cost in time, resources, and unity, we must prosecute Bush administration officials to lay down a marker.” He said his goal is an “independent inquiry that is beyond reproach and outside partisan politics to pursue and find the truth.”
Leahy’s proposal sounds eminently reasonable. It isn’t. In fact, the creation of a truth commission would be misguided and extremely dangerous.
First, the name “truth commission” carries sinister connotations. Truth commissions have been formed in Chile and Argentina to investigate abuses by those countries’ military dictatorships, in Rwanda to investigate genocide, and in Sierra Leone and Liberia to investigate crimes committed during civil wars. The common name isn’t just a coincidence; Leahy really thinks American antiterror efforts amount to government brutality. He says his inspiration is the truth commission formed in South Africa to investigate the crimes of apartheid. On the Senate floor, Whitehouse declared that our intelligence community “descended into interrogation techniques of the Inquisition, of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.”
Second, the purpose of a truth commission is to get all the facts out into the open, but the last thing we want to do is get all the facts about our counterterrorism policies out into the open. America is still at war. If we “lift the veil” (to use Leahy’s phrase) and expose our counterterrorism policies to the world, we also share that information with Osama bin Laden. Truth commissions are used to heal wounds after a conflict is over.
Third, the creation of a truth commission would send a chill through our intelligence community—putting our officials on the defensive when we need them to remain on the offensive against the enemy. One reason we failed to connect the dots before 9/11 is that our intelligence community was too risk averse. By contrast, since 9/11 that community has helped stop a series of planned attacks—including a plot to blow up our consulate in Karachi, a plot to attack our Marine camp in Djibouti, and plots to fly passenger planes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, Heathrow Airport, and Canary Wharf in downtown London. If we want our intelligence officials to return to a September 10 mind-set—or worse—the best way to do it is to haul them before a “truth commission.”
Leahy argues that giving these officials immunity in exchange for their testimony should erase these concerns. He is wrong; it does not take criminal prosecution to end careers and destroy lives. Moreover, although Leahy describes his commission benignly, declaring that “people would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences,” the truth is that he intends to give the commission subpoena power, the authority to compel testimony.
Pelosi opposes even giving immunity in exchange for testimony. For Pelosi, a truth commission is a prelude to criminal prosecutions; it is a way to gather information for a witch hunt of career officials who may have helped carry out Bush counterterrorism policies. As she put it: “I’m looking very closely at some of the appointments in the Obama administration, to make sure that nobody who had anything to do with this in the Bush administration . . . should be appointed at any level, advisory or any level, in the [Obama] administration.” Her goal, in other words, is to drive the public servants who kept us safe for seven years out of their jobs.
To establish a truth commission, Leahy would have to go through the normal legislative process, passing bills in the House and Senate and securing the president’s signature. This is a significant hurdle, but Congress does not have to create an independent commission to begin investigating our intelligence professionals. All it takes is for the relevant committees in Congress to begin the proceedings—and the Senate intelligence committee has already set the wheels in motion. In February, the Washington Post reported that the committee’s chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, “is planning an unprecedented review of the CIA’s handling of captured terrorist suspects, drawing back the curtain for the first time on the agency’s use of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques inside secret CIA prisons.” Asked whether this probe could spawn new ones, a Senate aide told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ll see what we find when we get into it.” Feinstein has not said whether her hearings will be public or whether the committee will produce a public report, but there will be enormous pressure from leftwing groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union to do so.
Thus far, the president has kept these investigations at arm’s length, but he has not closed the door to prosecutions, which is all the congressional investigators need to be emboldened. In the months ahead, our intelligence professionals will come increasingly under siege as the Senate committees, and then the House committees, ramp up their probes—and liberal activists call for public disclosure of the committees’ findings and prosecutions of those responsible.
And all the while the terrorists will be watching and laughing—and planning their next attack. If that attack happens, there will most certainly be an investigation into why we failed to prevent it. The questioning should begin with Senators Leahy, Whitehouse, and Feinstein.