Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy released the list of three witnesses who will testify at a hearing next week on forming a “truth commission” to investigate the Bush administration’s use of torture, domestic surveillance, and controversial policies enacted during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Thomas Pickering served as Under Secretary of State from 1997-2000, and served as Ambassador to the United Nations for President George H.W. Bush. He holds the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the United States Foreign Service. Pickering is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn served in the military for 35 years. He was Inspector General of the Navy, and on the board of the American Security Project. Gunn has been outspoken about his opposition to detention and interrogation policies that have permitted torture.
John Farmer served as a senior counsel and team leader for the 9/11 Commission. Farmer is a former State Attorney General for New Jersey. Through his work with the Constitution Project, Farmer has expressed support for an independent commission to examine Bush administration detainee and interrogation policies and practices.
Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr., senior counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Schwarz is the former chief counsel to the Church Committee that investigated domestic surveillance activities that took place during the Nixon administration.
Testifying for the Republican minority will be David B. Rivkin, Jr., an attorney with Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C., and Jeremy Rabkin, a law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington.
In a floor statement on Wednesday, Leahy said his March 4 hearing, “Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry,” would 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.”
On the same day, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in an interview with Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC program Wednesday, called Leahy’s investigative plan “a good idea,” but objected to an immunity proposal by Leahy 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 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.
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.
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