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Leahy, Other Lawmakers Call for Investigation of Bush-Era Terrorism Policies

March 4, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called for a nonpartisan "truth commission" to investigate the Bush administration's policies on interrogation of terror detainees. Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former President Bush and some of his administration’s most controversial policies still are on the minds of Democrats in Congress.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has called for an independent truth commission to investigate policies from alleged torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the administration’s use of warrantless wiretapping. He convened a hearing today.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: Vice President Dick Cheney and others from the Bush administration continue to assert that their tactics, including torture, were appropriate and effective. I don’t think we should let only one side define history on such important questions.

I think that we’re less safe as a result of mistakes of the last administration’s national security policies. I also believe that, in order to restore our moral leadership, we must acknowledge what was done in our name. We can’t turn the page unless we first read the page.

Different party views on commission

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Russ Feingold stressed the commission would be bipartisan.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, D-Wisc.: There should not be a focus on retribution or payback, and such an effort should not be used for partisan purposes.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican John Cornyn said he doubted a truly independent investigation was possible.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: The idea of creating an independent -- and I'm not sure how independent it would actually be -- unaccountable truth commission is a bad idea, with all due respect. And the suggestion that this subject can be delved into somehow in a nonpartisan fashion to me asks us to suspend our power of disbelief.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the judiciary panel's top Republican, Arlen Specter, noted the Justice Department already is investigating the Bush administration's legal reasoning for several controversial policies.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, R-Pa.: So, it seems to me that we really ought to -- we ought to follow a regular order here. You have a Department of Justice which is fully capable of doing an investigation. They're not going to pull any punches on the prior administration.

Bush memos released

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, on Monday, the Justice Department released nine Bush administration legal memos, written in the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks. Each one used a broad interpretation of presidential power to justify the administration's actions in combating terrorism.

In one, written two weeks after the attacks, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo justified military searches and seizures of terror suspects in the United States without warrants. He wrote that the government found "warrantless searches are reasonable when there are 'exigent circumstances,' such as a potential threat to safety."

Another memo suggested the government could put new restrictions on the press. Yoo wrote, "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully."

This week, the new attorney general, Eric Holder, said the government could protect the country from terrorists without asserting such broad and secretive authorities.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. attorney general: There is no reason why we cannot wage an effective fight against those who have sworn to harm us or our allies while we respect our most honored constitutional traditions. We can never and we will never put the welfare of the American people at risk, but we can also never choose actions that we know will weaken the legal and moral fiber of our nation.

Rove and Miers to testify

KWAME HOLMAN: That same day, government attorneys also acknowledged the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed nearly 100 videotapes of interrogations of terror suspects, some of which involved waterboarding or simulated drowning. The agency said the tapes were destroyed to protect the identity of the agents involved.

Though the CIA says no tapes have been destroyed since 2003, a federal investigation is ongoing.

For his part, President Obama says he has not ruled out an investigation into past policies, but said the country must look ahead.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My view is also that nobody is above the law and, if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama and the attorney general have said they will release other still-secret Bush memos as soon as possible.

And late today, the House Judiciary Committee announced it will receive written testimony from former White House officials Karl Rove and Harriet Miers about their roles in the firings of several federal prosecutors.