The chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed establishing an independent commission to investigate Bush administration policies dealing with such controversial issues as detainees and wiretapping, as well as decisions that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But lawmakers and legal experts are divided over whether the proposal is a good idea.
Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, says the independent, nonpartisan commission that he is proposing would investigate the treatment of detainees at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. It would also probe the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq and the warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens.
The commission would be modeled after the one that investigated the apartheid regime in South Africa. It would have subpoena power but would not bring criminal charges.
Leahy chaired a hearing on the matter Wednesday.
"We shouldn't be afraid to look at what we've done or hold ourselves accountable, as we do other nations when they make mistakes," he said. "We have to understand that national security means protecting our country by advancing our laws and values, and not by discarding them."
There has been mixed reaction to the commission proposal.
Democratic President Barack Obama has said he would consider the idea of a commission to probe the policies of his Republican predecessor, but said he is "more interested in looking forward than in looking back".
Republican lawmakers say the commission proposal amounts to nothing more than partisan politics.
"We have a Department of Justice which is fully capable of doing an investigation," said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, says Congress has done its share of examining Bush policies.
"We've already had over 150 oversight hearings on these subjects, we've logged more than 320 hours of witness testimony in unclassified settings, transcribed more than 3,200 pages of witness testimony and printed more than 17,000 pages of unclassified publicly-available reports," he said.
Even some Democrats question the need for a commission. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says her panel is doing its own inquiry into Bush's national security policies.
A panel of experts who testified at Wednesday's hearing also were divided on the issue.
Frederick Schwarz served as chief counsel on the Senate Committee on Intelligence Activity from 1975 to 1976.
"The bottom line is we owe it to ourselves and to our country to learn the facts about our government's counterterrorism policies," he said. "We know that abuses may have occurred, and the perception of these abuses has undermined our standing in the world and our fight for the hearts and minds of those who could be persuaded to do us harm. We must not flinch from learning the truth."
But Jeremy Rabkin, a law professor at George Mason University, says there is no reason for the United States to have the kind of truth commissions that were set up in South Africa and Chile.
"In those countries, they had to have these commissions because they couldn't have prosecutions, and they couldn't have prosecutions because their countries were so deeply divided and they had made promises in order to secure a peaceful transition," said Rabkin.
"Peace was really in doubt in those countries, so they had to back off of prosecution and say, we'll have a truth commission instead. We are not in that situation. If people think we should have prosecutions, well then there can be prosecutions," he added.
Still, there appears to be public support for an independent commission to handle such an inquiry. A USA Today-Gallup poll last month found that 62 percent of Americans favor the idea.
Senator Leahy's proposal is similar to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. The bill calls for creation of a bipartisan commission to probe the Bush administration's activities on detainees, warrantless surveillance and other issues.