Toward the end of the Bush administration, hardly a news cycle went by without another revelation of a secret program or some kind of political skulduggery. Bush and his inner circle managed to keep the lid on in most cases. But now that Bush is out of office, Democrats in Congress are demanding to air all the dirty secrets before a "Truth Commission" or a similar forum. Sounds like a good idea — but it isn't.
Before Congress jumps the gun, it should let the new administration delve into the record to determine if there is any basis for further investigation, given the broad authority of presidents. "You just have to walk in and ask where the file cabinets are," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is anything but a doctrinaire Republican yet doesn't favor any sort of "Truth Commission."
In fact, Attorney General Eric Holder is doing just that at the Justice Department, which produced the secret memos authorizing torture, warrantless surveillance and other practices showing contempt for established legal practices. Even before Holder came aboard, career officials at Justice began preparing a report that is said to contain sharp criticism of Bush administration lawyers who wrote these dubious opinions. Public disclosure of the report is pending approval by Holder and other top officials.
Meanwhile, Congress itself has a number of open investigations into possible criminal violations. These include probes by the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence panels of harsh interrogation of detainees, the allegedly political prosecution of a former Democratic governor of Alabama, the secret memos, and the role of former White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet Miers in the firing of federal prosecutors.
The latter is also the focus of a special Justice Department prosecutor, appointed last year. Isn't that enough? These investigations should be allowed to run their course before pondering creation of a "Truth Commission" such as the one favored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees.
One danger of such investigations is that they unwittingly provide immunity to anyone who is forced to testify. That's a get-out-of-jail-free card for any witness who might have actually committed a crime. Another problem is that any such endeavor would inevitably prove to be a huge distraction for official Washington at a time when the government needs to focus on winning two wars and restoring a sound economy. A "Truth Commission" would undoubtedly make it harder for President Obama to secure bipartisan support for these efforts.