Obama to create commission on torture?

OBAMA TO CREATE COMMISSION ON TORTURE?…. The AP reported this week that the Obama administration is “unlikely to bring criminal charges against government officials who authorized or engaged in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush presidency.” This was discouraging news, to be sure, though as Hilzoy noted, Obama — for his sake and the sake of possible prosecutions — needs to steer clear of what might be perceived as a “partisan witch hunt.”

With that in mind, Newsweek reports that Obama aides are considering a 9/11-style commission that would examine Bush administration policies, and “make public as many details as possible.”

“At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened,” said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved “waterboarding” and other controversial practices.

Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That’s one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice inquiry (absent specific new evidence of wrongdoing). “If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you’d instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship,” said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration. A new commission, on the other hand, could emulate the bipartisan tone set by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton in investigating the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 panel was created by Congress. An alternative model, floated by human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, would be a presidential commission similar to the one appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975 and headed by Nelson Rockefeller that investigated cold-war abuses by the CIA.

The idea of such panels is not universally favored among Obama advisers. Some with ties to the intelligence community fear the demoralizing impact on intelligence officers, said one source who had discussions with Obama aides about the idea. But during the campaign, both Obama and Eric Holder, slated to be nominated as attorney general, sharply criticized the use of torture and the legal rulings that permitted them. Holder called some Bush counterterror policies “excessive and unlawful.”

A commission approach would, at a minimum, identify criminal conduct conducted in the name of Bush counter-terrorism policies, and would diffuse charges about “partisan witch hunts.” Panelists would get the truth, and report it.

What prosecutors might do with such information is still unclear.