WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2009— -- The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said the government should look into creating a "truth commission" to investigate the Bush administration's Department of Justice.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that such a commission, which would answer to both Congress and the executive branch, could probe Bush administration policies on torture, interrogation and surveillance and "get to the bottom of what happened" during the eight years the Bush administration grappled with the legal war on terror.
Leahy called his proposal a "middle ground" between those critics of the Bush administration seeking to prosecute officials, and others wishing to concentrate on the future as opposed to investigating the past. "We need to be able to read the page before we turn it," said Leahy.
Some Republicans had tried unsuccessfully to get Attorney General Eric Holder to promise he would not prosecute Bush administration officials involved in the war on terror.
Leahy acknowledged that President Obama, in public statements, has been forward-looking and focused on "improving the future of hardworking Americans," but said that "many Americans feel we need to get to the bottom of what went wrong" during the past eight years.
Leahy said "a person or group" of "fair-minded" individuals could be authorized to "find the truth." Leahy suggested the process could involve subpoena powers and the authority to obtain immunity from prosecutors. "Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened," he said.
Republicans have not been keen on such an undertaking. "If every administration started to re-examine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it. This is not Latin America," the Judiciary Committee's top-ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told Reuters last month.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said no good purpose can be served by Leahy's suggestion, and, according to the AP, called it a political scheme "to unjustly malign former Bush administration officials."
After the speech, Leahy also made his first comments regarding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's recent announcement that she had gone through surgery for pancreatic cancer. Leahy said, "I pray for Justice Ginsburg's complete recovery."
He added that if a vacancy comes up, "I would like to see a Supreme Court that more directly resembles America.
"I'd like to see more people from outside what I call the judicial monastery, some who've had other experiences," he said.