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Facing the Cold, Hard Truth

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 5, 2009

Let's be truthful about it: Things aren't looking so good for the Truth Commission.

Chief Pursuer of Truth Patrick Leahy cut a lonely figure yesterday as he tried to persuade the Senate Judiciary Committee to endorse his plan for such a commission to probe the Bush administration's treatment of suspected terrorists.

About half of the audience seats in the committee room were full. The press tables: mostly empty. Even the dozen demonstrators in orange jumpsuits got bored with the proceedings and left before the hearing ended. Of the 19 members of the committee, only three, including Leahy, the chairman, bothered to question the witnesses.

The ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, used his opening statement to tease Truth-Seeker Leahy. He inserted into the record an article titled "Leahy's un-American activities commission," along with an accompanying photo showing a perturbed Leahy. "I would ask for you, Mr. Chairman, also to put in this elegant picture of the chairman," Specter proposed.

"I could care less about the picture," Leahy grumbled.

"Well, I've seen a lot of pictures of Senator Leahy, few as good as this," Specter went on, offering up the photo. "Here you are, fellows."

The sparse attendance and the jocular opposition were solid signs that the Truth Commission was foundering on the shoals of indifference.

"I really do regret not being able to stay," Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) remarked before departing.

"I regret that I have other commitments, so I'm going to have to excuse myself," said Specter, "but I hope to return to participate in the questions." He didn't.

Leahy spied the committee's most junior member, Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), at the end of a long row of empty seats. "Why don't you move on down here with us, please?" the chairman urged.

After the lone Republican questioner left the room, Leahy voiced his frustration to the two GOP witnesses. "The folks who invited you here didn't stay to ask you the questions," he complained to David Rivkin, a Reagan administration lawyer. "You were invited by the other side of the aisle, but they've all left," he told George Mason University's Jeremy Rabkin.

The truth about the Truth Commission is that opponents don't see it as much of a threat. President Obama pretty much torpedoed the idea the same day Leahy introduced it. "I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backward," he said.

So when the Judiciary Committee assembled yesterday, there was a lot of back-and-forth about backward and forward. "There are some who resist any effort to look back at all," the chairman observed.

"I would not mind looking backward if there's a reason to do so," Specter offered.

"I have a lot of empathy for those who, like President Obama, have expressed a desire to move forward rather than look back," said John Farmer, a pro-commission witness. But "the lack of public trust will ultimately undermine any effort to move forward."

Accused of looking backward, supporters of the Truth Commission tried to tag their opponents with something equally bad: hiding truth under the proverbial rug.

"How to handle counterterrorism is too important to sweep the past under the rug," postulated Frederick Schwarz of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) inquired: "At some point, if it's awful enough, does it become in our public interest as a nation to try to keep this swept under the rug?"

Former diplomat Thomas Pickering answered: "I do not believe that any degree of abhorrence . . . should be swept under the rug."

"If crimes are committed, I don't think we sweep them under the rug," the chairman agreed.

But arguments about looking and sweeping wouldn't be enough to get a Truth Commission formed. The chairman tried to generate some passion in the sleepy committee room. "In order to restore our moral leadership, we must acknowledge what was done in our name," he pleaded. "We can't turn the page unless we first read the page."

Republicans, confident of victory, did not get worked up. "Unnecessary," countered Specter, throwing in "helter-skelter" and "fishing expedition" for good measure. He pointed out that the Obama administration is already releasing previously secret Bush legal opinions that authorized the president to disregard much of the Constitution.

But Leahy was not going to let his Truth Commission go down without a fight. When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) asked permission to put into the record the objections of five former CIA directors, the chairman shot back: "There are equally impressive people who take an opposite view, and those letters will also be placed in the record."

Rabkin, the law professor, argued that "truth commission" brings to mind "the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in Chile. We are not in, remotely, that situation."

"Most haylofts, in the times I've been in Vermont, could not make the number of straw men that you and Mr. Rivkin have brought up," Leahy returned.

Hmm. Could that claim about the Vermont haylofts be accurate? Without a Truth Commission, we may never know.

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