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What Did Democrats Really Know About Bush's Torture Program?

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Who Knew What, When?

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One day after the Obama administration released four gruesome Bush-era legal opinions that described in shocking detail the torturous methods CIA interrogators were permitted to use to extract information from alleged “high-value” detainees, a majority of Democrats have remained collectively silent on whether the disclosures warrant a full-scale criminal investigation.

By comparison, revelations by the New York Times earlier this week that the National Security Agency, during George W. Bush’s last days in office, went above and beyond the legal limits imposed by Congress on its domestic surveillance activities was met with widespread condemnation by powerful Democratic leaders, who demanded investigations and said those who broke the law must be held accountable.

For example, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in a statement

“Congress expects to receive reports from the Inspectors General of key agencies regarding warrantless wiretapping activities, including those conducted under President Bush’s Terrorist Surveillance Program,” Pelosi said. “Should these reports or any further investigations by Congress prove these allegations true, those who directed these activities in the Bush Administration must be held accountable.”

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At least a dozen other Democrats issued statements similar to Pelosi’s, demanding investigations and calling for those who skirted the law to be held accountable.

Yet Pelosi did not issue a statement on the contents of the torture memos nor did she comment on whether the revelations warranted a similar investigation or accountability.

With the exception of two Democrats, not a single lawmaker called for an investigation on the scale of what has been proposed by Pelosi.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, has called on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to launch a criminal inquiry.

“The congressman has been in contact with the Attorney General's office regarding his concerns on a number of critical issues, including the need for an independent counsel to investigate, and where appropriate, to prosecute those responsible for the illegal torture of detainees,” said Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesman for Nadler, in an interview Friday.  

“He believes that, thanks to this administration's commitment to greater transparency, the Attorney General's forthright statement that waterboarding is torture, and the admission by Vice President Cheney that he authorized waterboarding, there can no longer be any question that there must be an investigation into precisely what happened and who is responsible, and to hold those responsible accountable. The Congressman fully intends to keep pressing for the appointment of an independent counsel.”

John Conyers, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday he does not understand “statements by the President and the Attorney General yesterday on the issue of potential prosecutions to address the senior officials and government attorneys who crafted and approved these programs.”

“Further, yesterday’s statements did not address the legality of any conduct that exceeded even the minimal boundaries established by the [Office of Legal Counsel] memos, or any interrogations that occurred before legal guidance was provided,” Conyers said.  “We must have a full investigation of the circumstances under which these torture methods were created, approved, and implemented, preferably by an independent commission as I previously proposed.”  

“And if our leaders are found to have violated the strict laws against torture, either by ordering these techniques without proper legal authority or by knowingly crafting legal fictions to justify the torture, they should be criminally prosecuted. It is simply obvious that, if there is no accountability when wrongdoing is exposed, future violations will not be deterred.”

But Conyers, who as recently as last month called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate torture, has not followed through as he did in June 2008 with a formal request to the attorney general.

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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)

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