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There’s a Better Way to Handle the Torture Controversy

Shortly after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, the new House Majority Leader, then-Rep. Dick Armey (Texas), was asked by reporters whether it was “payback time.— Were Republicans going to take revenge on the Democrats for all the abuses that they had heaped on the GOP minority over the previous 40 years?

[IMGCAP(1)]Armey’s reply was short and to the point: “You can’t get ahead while you’re trying to get even.— The Republicans had their own 100-day legislative agenda to worry about. It was called the “Contract with America.—

Fast-forward 14 years. Barack Obama was asked at his first press conference as president on Feb. 9 whether he thought there should be a truth and reconciliation commission, as proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration. Obama replied that while he had not seen the specifics of the proposal, “I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backward. … My general orientation is to say, let’s get it right moving forward.—

On his first full day in office the president had signed executive orders to ban torture and close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison and other detention facilities. He later released the Bush administration’s Justice Department memoranda justifying so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. But he also assured CIA employees that they would not be prosecuted for engaging in practices that they had been told were legal.

In his May 21 national security address, the president recognized that while some have called for a “fuller accounting, perhaps by an independent commission, I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability.— And he continued, “The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques.—

The most responsible of those inquiries into government detention and interrogation practices is being conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee under the skillful leadership of Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Kit Bond (R-Mo.). Instead of rushing before the TV cameras with sensational testimony from witnesses hidden in isolation booths, the Intelligence panel is quietly laying the groundwork in executive session for a thorough study of U.S. detention and interrogation policies.

In announcing the inquiry March 5, Feinstein and Bond said their purpose was “to review the program and to shape detention and interrogation policies in the future.— The study, which is expected to take about a year, will not only examine the techniques employed, but also whether the CIA accurately described the detention and interrogation program to other parts of the government, including the Office of Legal Counsel and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Finally, it will evaluate the information gained through the use of enhanced and standard interrogation techniques.

Other inquiries seem more bent on finding villains and scapegoats to punish — a pound of flesh here and a pelt or two there. Not only does Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) continue to back creation of a truth commission (after the president and Senate Majority Leader have rejected it), but she also has given her blessing to a House Judiciary Committee inquiry that seems headed toward impeachment of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Jay Bybee for authoring and approving the controversial EIT justification memos as head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Ironically, it was Pelosi who in the 110th Congress blocked House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) from moving forward on inquiries into impeaching then-President George W. Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney. (Conyers had conducted mock impeachment hearings in the previous Congress as ranking member on Judiciary.) She realized then that if the new Democratic majority in the House was to retain control of the body, it must demonstrate the ability to share in responsible governing with the opposition party president, while also laying out its competing priorities. That posture not only enabled the Democrats to increase their majorities in both chambers in 2008, but to be well prepared to assist a new Democratic president with his legislative agenda.

The decision to now target former Bush administration officials for giving what may have been bad legal advice is not doing Congressional Democrats any good. Moreover, this mass distraction is hurting the president as he attempts to move forward on a variety of domestic and international fronts. Pelosi’s political instincts in 2007, in looking forward, rather than back, paid off. That’s why it’s especially puzzling that she now seems to be playing to those on the left who are lusting for vengeance.

It is even more baffling when you consider that the Speaker has placed herself at the vortex of the torture tempest by raising the issue of whether she had been intentionally misled in 2002 by the CIA over the use of harsh interrogation techniques or, as others maintain, that she had actually condoned their use.

Yes, Republicans have been having a field day over Pelosi’s squirming discomfort. But they overplayed their hand with a ham-fisted attempt to put the Speaker in the dock with a phony question of privilege resolution. The National Republican Congressional Committee then broadcast radio and TV ads attacking seven Democratic Members who voted to table a Republican effort to overturn the chair’s legitimate ruling that the resolution was not proper (try to explain that as a substantive vote). The GOP is ultimately hurting itself with these clumsy efforts, which only remind voters that the party remains joined at the hip with the unpopular former president.

Members of both parties would do well to act like responsible adults by heeding the biblical injunction from the president’s inauguration: “The time has come to set aside childish things.—

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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