“Truth Commission” proposal on Bush crimes reveals precarious state of US democracy

 

The enormous crimes of the Bush administration are well-documented, including the launching of an aggressive war on the basis of lies; the torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and a host of secret sites around the globe, and the use of illegal wiretapping against US citizens and other flagrant violations of democratic rights. There is no shortage of statutes under which George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and others could be prosecuted.

The Democrats in Congress were accomplices to the criminality, and now the Obama administration, with minor adjustments, intends to continue these policies. In addition to dispatching more troops to an expanding neo-colonial war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the new government has recently intervened in several court cases involving torture and illegal wiretapping, defending the previous administration’s actions and invoking “state secrets privilege” to argue that the cases should not even be heard.

Newly-appointed CIA director Leon Panetta reassured his employees this Thursday in an email, according to media accounts, that those who took part in “harsh” interrogations “are not in danger of being punished.”

Leahy’s project of a truth commission has the character largely of damage control. On the one hand, there is public opinion to assuage—some two-thirds of the population in polls support an inquiry into Bush administration abuses. On the other, Leahy and sections of the political elite are anxious that America’s image overseas be repaired through a ritualized admission that “mistakes” were made.

In his opening statement, Leahy declared that “Nothing has done more to damage America’s place in the world than the revelation that this nation stretched the law and the bounds of executive power to authorize torture and cruel treatment.” He went on, however, to chide those who were “fixated on prosecution” and propose “a middle ground to get to the truth of what went on during the last several years, in a way that invites cooperation.”

Thomas Pickering, former US ambassador to the United Nations under President George H. W. Bush and career diplomat, echoed these sentiments: “To the extent that the Guantánamo detention camp, Abu Ghraib, secret detention sites, and torture and abuse enhance the efforts of our adversaries to recruit others to join their ranks and to make a case against us, we cannot simply turn the page. We must engage in a genuine effort to take stock of these policies and actions. We must acknowledge any mistakes that were made and commit not to repeat them.”

Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking minority member of the judiciary committee, opposed the call for a truth commission and instead proposed that if there were evidence of criminal conduct, the wrongdoers ought to be prosecuted. He argued, “You have a Department of Justice that is fully capable of conducting an investigation.”

Referring to the recently released memos written by officials in the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which essentially authorized the establishment of dictatorial rule, Specter called them “shocking” and suggested that the OLC officials’ actions “may fall within criminal conduct.”

Witnesses opposed to the truth commission idea at Leahy’s hearings, including former Reagan and Bush justice department official David Rivkin, made comments along similar lines.

A criminal investigation is precisely what the Democrats do not want to pursue, and Specter and the Republicans know it. The Pennsylvania senator is calling Leahy’s bluff, fully cognizant that the Obama administration will not allow such investigations or indictments.

Leahy responded to Specter’s comments about prosecutions of wrongdoing with “Be careful what you wish for,” but this is simply hot air. His own offer of immunity to those who might testify before such a truth commission and his calls for “cooperation,” not indictments, reveal the more than half-hearted nature of the effort.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the radio program Democracy Now!, “I think essentially that the Leahy commission is an excuse for non-prosecution. … [I]n the face of what we’ve seen in this country, which is essentially a coup d’état, a presidential dictatorship and torture, it’s essentially a mouse-like reaction to what we’ve seen. And it’s being set up really by a liberal establishment that is really, in some ways, in many ways, on the same page as the establishment that actually carried out these laws. And it’s saying, ‘OK, let’s expose it, and then let’s move on  read more

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