As Democratic leaders struggle over what to do about the Bush administration's past abuses, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy joined those advocating a "truth and reconciliation commission"- that would seek facts, not jail time.
"We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair minded, and without axes to grind,"- Leahy said during a speech at Georgetown University's Law Center on Monday. "Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth"- about controversies such as torture of detainees and warrantless wiretaps.
"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 prosecutions in order to get to the whole truth,"- the Vermont Democrat said.
"What I have said is that my administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture that we abide by the Geneva Conventions and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm,"- Obama said at his first prime-time news conference as President.
"My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But generally speaking I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."-
But Conyers also has called for the appointment of an independent counsel to launch a criminal probe into the Bush administration's policies. Leahy said his plan would be designed to meet public demands for accountability but not lead to prosecutions of any sort.
The dilemma of how to proceed on Bush administration crimes became more acute in the last two months when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney admitted publicly that they had personally authorized the waterboarding of at least three suspected terrorists and allowed interrogators to use harsh methods against 33 other suspects.
Though Bush and Cheney continued to insist that their actions did not violate anti-torture laws, waterboarding "" a technique that makes the victim believe he is drowning "" has been regarded as torture at least since the Spanish Inquisition and has been treated as a serious war crime by the U.S. government in the past.
As recently as the 1980s, a Texas sheriff was prosecuted by the Justice Department for using waterboarding to extract confessions from suspects.
Many rank-and-file Democrats and constitutional scholars have argued that criminal prosecutions of senior Bush administration officials are the only meaningful way to achieve accountability. Otherwise, they argue, the United States is making a mockery of the core American principle that "no man is above the law"- as well as the nation's historic leadership on human rights.
Some human rights experts also note that U.S. commitments under international law require legal action against anyone implicated in torture, either by prosecuting those responsible in the country or by turning them over to international courts.
Stopping at Facts
However, the inclination among Democratic leaders in Congress and the Obama administration has trended toward fact-finding and nothing more, a position expressed by Leahy.