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To probe detainee abuse, Congress leans toward outsourcing

Success of the 9/11 commission means lawmakers often punt toughest investigations to independent bodies – despite some internal resistance.

By Staff writer / May 14, 2009


Congress is on track to punt its toughest investigations – including the hot-button one over harsh and possibly illegal treatment of terrorism suspects – to freshly minted, independent commissions, seen as freer of partisan rancor than the House and Senate.

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While there is some pushback, especially from lawmakers with long institutional memories, the impulse to outsource oversight is becoming the new normal on Capitol Hill.

The most pressing question this week concerns torture or abuse of detainees in Central Intelligence Agency custody – and who knew about it.

Calls to create an outside “truth commission” are gaining momentum in both the House and Senate. Facing questions about what she knew and when she knew it, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi renewed calls Thursday for an independent commission.

Outside help on a host of issues

But that's not the only question Congress is passing on to outside investigators. Is the Treasury Department wasting money with its Troubled Asset Relief Program? Congress mandated the creation of an independent congressional oversight panel, instead of tapping one of its own oversight committees, when it passed TARP legislation last October.

What caused the meltdown on Wall Street? In previous market collapses, such questions were grist for the banking committees, which bulked up on staff to investigate. But when the Senate Banking panel showed no signs of gearing up for a full-scale investigation, the Senate voted last month to create a Financial Markets Commission to do the work. On May 6, the House passed its own version.

Together, these initiatives are setting up defining moments in the history of the 111th Congress.

The battle over how to investigate Bush-era treatment of detainees, however, most illustrates a growing incapacity on Capitol Hill to deal with tough issues amid a highly partisan climate.

The first congressional hearing on the release of four Bush-era memos enabling "enhanced interrogation" methods turned sharply partisan this week – fueling calls for an independent panel to sort out the issues.

While Democrats wanted to restrict the inquiry to how Bush administration lawyers paved the way for harsh treatment of detainees, Republicans are demanding to know what top Democrats – who were among the few to receive classified briefings on these policies – knew and what they did about it.

The No. 1 target is Speaker Pelosi, who renewed calls Thursday for an independent commission to carry on the investigation.

"I have long supported creation of an independent truth commission to determine how intelligence was misused, and how controversial and possibly illegal activities like torture were authorized within the [Bush] executive branch," she said at a briefing on Thursday. "Until a truth commission is implemented, I encourage the appropriate committees of the House to conduct vigorous oversight of these issues."