More than 30 years ago, a special Senate investigation peered into abuses that included spying on the American people by their own government.
The findings by Senator Frank Church's committee, drawn from testimony spanning 800 witnesses and thousands of pages of government documents, revealed how powerful government surveillance tools were misused against the American people. For instance, the FBI's COINTELPRO operation spent more than two decades searching in vain for communist influence in the NAACP and infiltrated domestic groups that, for example, advocated for women's rights. The Church committee's work led to creation of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and later to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act--reforms that largely held until the Bush years. (See George W. Bush's biggest economic mistakes.)
The parallels with today are clear, and so are the lessons. Then, as in recent years, some were willing, in the name of security, to trade away the people's rights as if they were written in sand, not stone. For much of this decade, we have read about and witnessed such abuses as the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the disclosure of torture memos and the revelations about the warrantless surveillance of Americans.
So what is to be done about the abuses of the Bush years? Some say do nothing, and a few Senators even tried to make Attorney General Eric Holder promise in his confirmation hearings to launch no prosecutions for Bush-era lawbreaking. At the opposite end of the spectrum, others say that even if it takes many years and divides the country and distracts from the urgent priority of fixing the economy, we must prosecute Bush Administration officials to lay down a marker. The courts are already considering congressional subpoenas that were issued earlier as well as claims of privilege and legal immunities. Those cases will stretch out for some time, as would prosecutions--taking even a decade or longer. Moreover, it is easier for prosecutors to net those far down the ladder than those at the top, who set the tone and the policies.
There is another option, a middle ground whose overarching goal is to find the truth: we need to get to the bottom of what happened--and why--to make sure it never happens again.
One path to that goal is to appoint a truth-finding panel. We could develop and authorize a person or group of people universally recognized as fair-minded and without an ax to grind. Their straightforward mission would be to find the truth. People would be invited to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences, not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments but to assemble the facts. If needed, such a process could involve subpoena powers and even the authority to obtain immunity from prosecution in order to get to the whole truth.
During the past several years, the U.S. has been deeply divided. This has made our government less productive and our society less civil. President Obama is right in saying that we cannot afford extreme partisanship and debilitating divisions. As we commemorate the Lincoln bicentennial, there is a need, again, "to bind up the nation's wounds." Rather than vengeance, we need an impartial pursuit of what actually happened and a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past.
This is not a step to be taken lightly. We need to see whether there is interest for this in Congress and the new Administration. We need to work through concerns about classified information and claims of Executive privilege. Most of all, we need to see whether the American people are ready to take this path.
In the meantime, Congress will work with the Obama Administration to fix those parts of our government that went off course. But to repair the damage of the past eight years and restore America's reputation and standing in the world, we should not simply turn the page without being able first to read it. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed that more than 60% of Americans agree that investigating the failed national-security policies of the past eight years should be considered.
Two years ago, I described the scandals of the Bush-Cheney-Gonzales Justice Department as the worst since Watergate. They were. We are still digging out from the debris. We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong after a dangerous and disastrous diversion from American law and values. The American people have a right to know what their government has done in their names.
Leahy, a six-term Democratic Senator from Vermont, is a former prosecutor and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee