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Among Experts, Consensus Builds for a Commission

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Today the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the idea of a commission of inquiry to look into criminal wrongdoing by the Bush Administration. Here’s Tim Rutten in today’s Los Angeles Times:

Just how close to the brink of executive tyranny did the United States come in the panic that swept George W. Bush’s administration after 9/11? The answer, it now seems clear, is that we came far closer than even staunch critics of the White House believed…

Understanding how all this occurred, as well as how the CIA came to destroy 92 videotapes of the torture and incarceration it carried out under the authority of the Yoo memos, is vital. The problem is that ordinary congressional hearings would inevitably be attacked as partisan. And we don’t need a witch-hunt or a series of prosecutions of CIA officers who were following orders they’d been told were based on legal opinions from the Department of Justice. That’s why Congress should take up the suggestion of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and establish a bipartisan citizens commission to investigate and report on exactly what occurred. We need to understand just how close fear and overweening ambition took us to executive tyranny.

Salon’s Mark Benjamin surveys a number of experts on the mechanics of the commission and finds them remarkably agreed on most of the open questions about the mechanics of a commission:

Experts on government fact-finding missions interviewed by Salon, however, articulated surprisingly similar advice for
Congress on how to conduct spadework on the torture issue, including unanimity on exactly who should not participate in an investigation: current members of Congress. “My thought is that is probably not the way to go in this case,” said Kenneth Kitts, author of “Presidential Commissions & National Security: The Politics of Damage Control”… Kitts and other experts suggested the creation of an independent commission, buoyed by force of law, generously funded and staffed and focused almost exclusively on detention and interrogation issues during the Bush administration. It would be something along the lines
of the 9-11 Commission.

“I would prefer a commission of well-known figures, not bipartisan but non-partisan,” said Juan Mendez, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an organization that assists countries pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse. By nonpartisan, Mendez said he meant individuals with reputations for integrity and not known for having a political ax to grind. “I would prefer that members of Congress not be part of it,” he said.

The commission should investigate torture, but probably refrain from wandering into other abuses such as warrantless wire-tapping, most experts said. “It is not a good idea to frame it as, ‘Let’s look at everything the Bush administration did,'” explained Lisa Magarrell, who works with Mendez at the ICTJ. She suggested that Republicans would reflexively label a broader mandate as a political witch hunt.

I came out just where Mendez and Kitts do on these issues, and we’re all also agreed on the “amnesty” question: it makes no sense to make a decision about amnesty or prosecution until you’ve fully investigated and settled the facts. That question needs to be asked and answered at the end, not at the beginning of the process.

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