Influential Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has proposed that an independent "truth commission" be established to investigate alleged abuses of power under the Bush administration. President Barack Obama has reacted cautiously to the suggestion, saying he is more interested in looking forward than backwards.
Several Democratic lawmakers have joined a number of human-rights organizations in calling for an investigation of the Bush administration's counter-terrorism policies. Controversial policies include certain interrogation techniques used at U.S. detention centers in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the warrant-less wiretapping of U.S. citizens.
Speaking at Georgetown University earlier this month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said there was a "dangerous departure from the rule of law" during the Bush administration, and that Congress needs to make sure America gets back on the right track.
"One path to that goal would be a reconciliation process, a truth commission. We could develop and authorize a person, a group of people universally recognized as fair-minded, without any ax to grind [no personal or political interest]. Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth. People would be told to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts, he said.
Leahy said he envisions the panel modeled after the truth commission in South Africa that investigated the apartheid era, and that immunity from prosecution could be offered to those who cooperate.
"Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened. And sometimes the best way to move forward, is to find out the truth, find out what happened, and we do that to make sure it never happens again," he said.
Leahy has also made clear that Democratic lawmakers who supported questionable Bush administration policies must also be investigated, which may help to explain why not many Democratic lawmakers have been clamoring for the commission.
One notable exception is House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, who has called for a National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties, with subpoena power, much like the 9/11 Commission.
Elizabeth Goitien of the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute, agrees that some sort of truth commission could help U.S. credibility.
"Now in order to do that, the commission would have to be set up correctly, I mean it would have to have real teeth and real powers. It would have to have subpoena power, it would have to get cooperation from the government and there would have to be the force of law behind it to make sure that it got cooperation. And it would have to be thorough and unflinching. But I think if a commission were to be set up the right way and to do a good job, then I think "yes", it could demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are very serious about accountability," she said.
Most Republican lawmakers oppose investigating the Bush administration, saying such a probe could compromise counter-terrorism efforts.
Moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter rejected the idea of truth commissions, saying if every administration started to examine what the previous administration did, there would be no end to it.
President Obama has not endorsed the truth commission. At a nationally-televised prime-time news conference earlier this month, he was asked about Leahy's proposal, and said he would review it.
"Nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But, that generally speaking, I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards," he said.
Mr. Obama may fear an investigation could inflame the kind of partisan divisions he has said he wants to avoid. Also the president will likely need Republican support to deal with the economic crisis and challenges such as health care and foreign policy issues.
But a USA Today/Gallup poll this month found that 62 percent of Americans support either a criminal investigation or an independent panel to look into allegations of torture and other abuses of power during the Bush administration.