Saturday, April 25, 2009

Congress not likely to form panel on alleged torture

Reid, Pelosi
Alex Brandon / Associated Press; David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to let a Senate panel finish its work. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants an independent inquiry.
Alex Brandon / Associated Press; David Paul Morris / Bloomberg News
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to let a Senate panel finish its work. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants an independent inquiry.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama oppose the idea, but several prominent Democrats disagree.
Reporting from Washington — Congress is unlikely to form an independent panel to study the Bush administration’s program of harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects now that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have voiced opposition to the idea.

Reid (D-Nev.) said he preferred to allow the Senate Intelligence Committee to finish its investigation of the Bush-era practices before taking further action. That could take the rest of the year, he said. Different approaches for two men at center of 'torture memo' controversy

Obama told congressional leaders Thursday that he thought an independent inquiry would create a distraction from his legislative agenda.

Obama’s and Reid’s stances are at odds with those of several prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and liberal interest groups. Some have long been eager to investigate the Bush-era interrogation program, and possibly to prosecute lawyers and other officials who greenlighted it.

New details of the interrogation methods, which included waterboarding and other techniques some have labeled torture, came to light last week when Obama released legal memos from the Bush Justice Department that laid out some of the techniques and the legal rationale for them.

The new details had seemed to add momentum to the call for an independent commission, similar to the one that Congress created to study the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the government’s response to them.

For months, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for a so-called truth commission that would investigate the actions of officials in the White House, the Justice Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other entities involved in the fight against terrorism.

Leahy said this week that such a commission would not target Bush officials for blame. “I’m not out just to hang a lot of scalps on the wall. I want to know exactly what happened so that it won’t happen again,” he told reporters.

Congressional investigations can carry risks for those who plan them, sometimes leading to unintended consequences. The Democratic Congress’ inquiry into the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s elevated Lt. Col. Oliver L. North into a folk hero.

A congressional inquiry might appear to the public as Democrats merely settling scores with the previous administration, said Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., chief counsel to the Brennan Center for Justice, a civil liberties think tank at New York University School of Law.

Schwarz was a lawyer to the 1970s Senate committee chaired by then-Sen. Frank Church that examined CIA abuses during the Cold War. He believes an independent commission would be better suited to investigate Bush-era anti-terrorism policy and would have more public credibility.

“If you are careful in doing that,” Schwarz said, “you are more likely to get people who will say: We’re looking at really important issues for the future of the United States.”

But such commissions pose their own problems. Although the Sept. 11 panel was largely considered a success, as a body outside government it had difficulty gaining the cooperation of federal agencies. Also, it lacked the ability to enact the reforms it advocated.

In its report, the 9/11 commission avoided assigning blame to individuals. One critic of a proposed panel to investigate interrogations during the Bush era says that would be impossible in this instance.

“It would be like a gigantic special counsel — even worse,” said David B. Rivkin Jr., an official in the George H.W. Bush administration. “It would just poison the atmosphere in Washington.” The end result, he said, would be laying the groundwork for criminal prosecution, either by the Justice Department or by an international tribunal.

Obama has left the question of criminal prosecutions of Bush-era officials to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. The Justice Department’s internal inquiry of its lawyers’ actions on terrorism policy could be made public within the next several weeks. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), has said he will launch his own inquiry after the Justice Department’s report is made public.

joliphant@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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