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In one week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy says he will begin establishing a “commission of inquiry” to investigate the Bush administration’s use of torture and other abuses of power, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is objecting to his plan of granting immunity to some witnesses.
In an interview with Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC program Wednesday, Pelosi called Leahy's investigative plan “a good idea,” but objected to immunity that could prevent prosecutors from holding Bush administration officials accountable for crimes in a court of law.
Pelosi, who refused to hold impeachment hearings when George W. Bush was President, signaled that she now prefers a proposal by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, who wants a “blue-ribbon panel” to probe the Bush administration but seeks a special prosecutor, too.
Pelosi also said that when she was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee during Bush's first term she was briefed about the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques but only in the "abstract." She said she was never told the agency's interrogators intended to use such methods.
In a floor statement earlier on Wednesday, Leahy said he would hold a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 4 to examine the best way for an independent panel to probe how Bush exercised his “national security and executive power as related to counterterrorism efforts.”
“The past can be prologue unless we set things right,” the Vermont Democrat said. “The last administration justified torture, presided over the abuses at Abu Ghraib, destroyed tapes of harsh interrogations, and conducted ‘extraordinary renditions’ that sent people to countries that permit torture during interrogations.
“The last administration used the Justice Department – our premier law enforcement agency – to subvert the intent of congressional statutes. They wrote secret law to give themselves legal cover for these misguided policies, policies that could not withstand scrutiny if brought to light.”
Though Leahy has argued that a “truth commission” is the best way to expose the dark underbelly of Bush’s policies, other civil liberties experts say accountability requires bringing to justice perpetrators of serious crimes, no matter how high their government positions.
On Tuesday, David Swanson of afterdowningstreet.org circulated a petition demanding Attorney General Eric Holder appoint a special prosecutor to launch a criminal investigation into the Bush administration’s actions.
After Leahy’s Senate comments, the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in, urging both a special prosecutor and a congressional select committee.
"Both the Obama administration and Congress have an obligation to conduct investigations in order to achieve accountability and to ensure these egregious errors will not happen again,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “In order for America to move forward and put torture and abuse behind us, we must know how our nation was led astray.”
A Gallup poll, released this month, found a plurality favoring a criminal probe – and a strong majority supporting some additional fact-finding. For instance, on torture, 38 percent favored a criminal investigation while 24 percent favored an inquiry by an independent panel. Thirty-four percent of those polled said they did not support additional investigation of Bush’s policies.
The poll results undercut claims of many Republicans and some Democrats that the public lacks the appetite to look into Bush administration abuses.
In his floor speech, Leahy said he’s aware that “many are focused on whether crimes were committed” but added that “it is just as important to learn if significant mistakes were made, regardless of whether they can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury to be criminal conduct.