Feb. 24, 2009 | WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to move forward with a commission to investigate torture during the Bush administration. Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., told Salon Tuesday that his panel would soon announce a hearing to study various commission plans. His staff said the announcement could come as early as Wednesday.
While Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers and North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones drafted a bill to create a commission to review abuse of war powers during the Bush administration, Leahy's Senate commission would represent the first concrete steps toward a broad review of U.S. torture since 9/11.
Spearheading Senate efforts to establish a torture commission is Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. As a member of both the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee, Whitehouse is privy to information about interrogations he can't yet share. Still, regarding a potential torture commission, he told Salon, "I am convinced it is going to happen." In fact, his fervor on the issue was palpable. When asked if there is a lot the public still does not know about these issues during the Bush administration, his eyes grew large and he nodded slowly. "Stay on this," he said. "This is going to be big."
Whitehouse admitted he had not discussed the plan yet with President Obama, who has been notably wishy-washy on the notion since taking office. On the one hand, Obama has consistently said that "my administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture." Yet on the other hand, he has insisted that "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'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
According to Whitehouse, current politics dictate that Congress should take the lead on establishing a torture commission. "When you look at the economic meltdown that [Obama] was left by the Bush administration, you can see why he would want to reassure the American public that he is out there looking at these problems and trying to solve them and not focusing on the sins of the past," he said.
Whitehouse, however, predicted that Obama would not object to a torture commission moving forward in Congress. Besides, he said, "When push comes to shove, we are the legislative branch of government. We have oversight responsibilities. And we don't need the executive branch's approval to look into these things just as a constitutional matter."