As President Barack Obama reverses some of ex-President George W. Bush’s most controversial “war on terror” policies, a consensus seems to be building among Democratic congressional leaders that further investigations are needed into Bush’s use of torture and other potential crimes.
On Wednesday – the first working day of the Obama administration – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would support funding and staff for additional fact-finding by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which last month released a report tracing abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, decision to exclude terror suspects from Geneva Convention protections.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, who issued that report, echoed Reid’s comments, saying “there needs to be an accounting of torture in this country.” Levin, D-Michigan, also said he intends to encourage the Justice Department and incoming Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate torture practices that took place while Bush was in office.
Two other key Democrats joined in this growing chorus of lawmakers saying that serious investigations should be conducted.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, a former federal prosecutor and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a floor speech, “As the President looks forward and charts a new course, must someone not also look back, to take an accounting of where we are, what was done, and what must now be repaired.”
Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters: "Looking at what has been done is necessary.”
On Jan. 18, two days before Obama’s inauguration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed support for House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers’s plan to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers.”
In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Pelosi specifically endorsed a probe into the politicization of the Justice Department, but didn’t spell out a position on Conyers's plan to examine the Bush administration’s torture and rendition policies, which could prove embarrassing to Pelosi and other Democratic leaders who were briefed by the CIA about these tactics.
Still, when Wallace cited Obama’s apparent unwillingness to investigate the Bush administration, Pelosi responded: “I think that we have to learn from the past, and we cannot let the politicizing of the — for example, the Justice Department, to go unreviewed. Past is prologue. We learn from it. And my views on the subject — I don't think that Mr. Obama and Mr. Conyers are that far apart.”
The emerging consensus among top congressional Democrats for some form of investigation into Bush’s controversial policies has surprised some progressives who had written off the leadership long ago for blocking impeachment hearings and other proposals for holding Bush and his subordinates accountable.
In 2006, for instance, Pelosi famously declared that “impeachment is off the table,” and prior to Election 2008, the Democratic leadership largely acquiesced to Bush’s demands for legislation that supported his “war on terror” policies, including a compromise bill granting legal immunity to telecommunications companies that assisted in Bush’s warrantless wiretaps.
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