The debate on commissions

THE DEBATE ON COMMISSIONS…. In his must-read cover story in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, editor Charles Homans argues that relying on commissions instead of subpoenas may produce more answers on what the Bush administration has been up to. Responding indirectly, Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bush, argues that neither commissions nor subpoenas are a good idea.

It reminds us that Homans’ piece is the subject of a discussion at the TPM Cafe this week. Scott Horton had a very good item on the article, and sides with Homans on the commissions.

Charles Homans’ article in the current Washington Monthly is a must-read for those who will be returning to Washington in January. He has catalogued what Donald Rumsfeld would call the “known unknowns” — the areas where we know something went on that the Bush Administration has struggled to keep in the dark. As he notes, we come to almost identical conclusions after approaching the question from different perspectives. The next step should be to fill in the gaps from the historical narrative. Who did what, when and how. We need to establish the facts and we need to force the publication of the key documents which are still being withheld. That’s our right as a democracy.

I believe that the commission approach is the way to go forward. I don’t deny that Congressional hearings could make some headway. However, I am not persuaded that the Congressional committees have the stamina, the concentration and the expertise to do what is necessary. Over the last year I attended all but two of the hearings the House Judiciary Committee arranged to dig into the torture issue. Bush Administration witnesses used every evasive maneuver known to a wily lawyer to avoid answering the questions raised. And the members did not for the most part know how to ask questions. When a completely dismissive or evasive answer came, they went on to the next question. Questioning needs to be done by a professional interrogator who is focused on building a complete record, not playing to the cameras and the audience in the constituency back home.

Under President Bush, the Constitution took a shellacking. We had the most devious, secretive government in our nation’s history. In the end, it was at war with the rule of law itself. But this isn’t the time to be talking about indictments and prosecutions, though that may come in the fullness of time. Now is the time to force those dark secrets from the recesses in which they’ve been hidden and insure that the public fully understands what was done by the most incompetent, corrupt and lawless government we’ve ever had. Charting those dealings is the first step. Correcting them is the second.