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Congress inches toward 'truth commission' for torture probe

Democrats and Republicans are finding little common ground, leading some Senators to say an independent investigator is needed.

By Staff writer / May 13, 2009

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont speaks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California during a hearing Wednesday about the interrogation techniques used during the previous administration.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP



Congress is in danger of losing control of its own investigations into Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” methods – leading to calls for an independent “truth commission” to resolve the tough, increasingly partisan issues.

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A Democrat-led Senate panel started the day intending to focus on a narrow issue: What role did a handful of Bush administration lawyers play in enabling interrogation tactics that critics say amount to torture?

But Republicans sought to broaden the issue, shifting blame back to Congress. They asked: What did members of Congress know, and what, if anything, did they do about it?

The session was the first congressional hearing on the subject since the Obama administration released four Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos that authorized waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. The partisan fireworks cast doubts on Congress's ability to carry out a bipartisan investigation that will be credible with the public.

Other hearings and congressional probes lie ahead, but a truth commission will ultimately be needed to get to the bottom of all the allegations, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island.

"The lies are legion,” said Senator Whitehouse, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, which held the hearing. “We were told that waterboarding was determined to be legal, but we’re not told how badly the law was ignored, bastardized, and manipulated by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel."

Republicans mounted a sharp counterattack.

“If we’re going to find out who did what when, we need to find out who was told about it and when they were told about it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina at today’s hearing.

“Now, I don’t know what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it, and I really don’t think she’s a criminal if she was told about waterboarding and did nothing. But I think it is important to understand that members of Congress allegedly were briefed about these interrogation techniques,” he added.

As the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R) of California said that she had been briefed about the prospect of waterboarding, but was not aware that it was being used in practice.

But a CIA document released last week at GOP urging cited 40 classified briefings with top Democratic and Republican lawmakers on interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. The report, covering briefings between September 2002 and March 2009, relit the controversy.

Democrats are wary that broadening the scope of the investigation not only threatens leaders like Representative Pelosi, but could also compromise the climate for other congressional investigations by politicizing the issue further.