Momentum is building for the formation of a “Truth Commission,” charged with investigating the extra-constitutional behavior of the George W. Bush administration. At issue for proponents of this measure are violations of Americans’ civil rights and the detention, treatment, and transfer of post 9-11 detainees by the U.S. under Bush’s leadership.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D. – VT) personally took his case for a “Truth Commission” to the Obama White House two weeks ago. The administration indicated to Leahy that it would remain focused on the economy for the time being. He then suggested that Congress should move forward without the Obama administration. The Senator followed up on the matter, making his argument for this method of investigating the Bush administration in the current issue of Time:
We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair-minded and without an ax to grind. Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth. People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments but to assemble the facts. If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecution in order to get to the whole truth.
Leahy acknowledged that a “Truth Commission” would likely cause controversy but that, “We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong after a dangerous and disastrous diversion from American law and values.” However, his path of discovery comes with an important caveat: granting immunity to Bush officials in order to assure cooperation with the commission. Immunity is offered as a “middle ground” approach by which progressives would have to forgo their fervent desire for prosecutions, and Bush supporters would need to consent to the commission in the first place.
Leahy’s middle path, ideally, would expedite the process of bringing the numerous complaints of unconstitutional behavior into the light of day, and there is at least one good reason for doing so. History has shown that, should matters of presidential misbehavior go unexamined, Americans tend to forget about them.
In a recent article at The Huffington Post, Will Bunch, author of Tear Down This Myth — a chronicle of the historical makeover of Ronald Reagan — noted the fickle nature of the American collective memory. He imparts the Reagan era example of the Iran-Contra scandal:
Few imagined that the Iran-Contra scandal would fade from the American consciousness, but it did, to the extent that the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., gets away with no mention at all in any of its expansive exhibit spaces. The thing is, it was one easy step from the non-impeachment to the decision by Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush, who had some links to the scandal as the Gipper’s vice president, to pardon some key figures like former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. By now, the modern template was beginning to take shape, that it was a bad idea to go after White House officials including the president on “policy matters,” even if a policy was in clear violation of the law — as would be the case with torture directives a generation down the road.
Bunch’s assessment is apt. Would we have to endure the controversy of bringing Bush officials to justice if Congress and the Justice Department had done what it was supposed to in the 1980s? I imagine not. In fact, what is more likely is that the numerous offenses of George W. Bush wouldn’t have occurred in the first place. To be sure, Reagan’s legacy certainly wouldn’t carry the connotation of reverence that it does today.
Tell me what you think. Does Patrick Leahy’s plan appeal to you, or would you prefer to let it drift for the sake of not having the inevitable arguments that will arise over its inception? For me, the prosecutorial immunity contained within Leahy’s “Truth Commission” proposal leaves a dreadful taste in my mouth, but having to bear witness to a Bush legacy makeover would make me physically ill. At the very least, his pragmatic proposal could serve to crystallize Bush in our historical memory as a president who acted in violation his oath. Is that good enough?
Whatever your feelings on the matter, the “Truth Commission” that the Senator is suggesting is gathering momentum. Just last week, The Constitution Project issued a plea for such an investigative body to president Obama. Signatories of the statement(.pdf) are reputable and ideologically diverse. Here’s an excerpt:
We urge President Obama to appoint a non-partisan commission of distinguished Americans to examine, and provide a comprehensive report on, policies and actions related to the detention, treatment, and transfer of detainees after 9/11 and the consequences of those actions, and to make recommendations for future policy in this area.
It sounds great, in theory. However, until more details are available I’ll have to remain on the fence.