Memo to Obama: You Can Hold Bush and Cheney Accountable While Still Moving Forward
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In less than one week, the U.S. Constitution will be front and center as Barack Obama solemnly swears to "preserve, protect, and defend" it. Given all that has happened over the last eight years, that oath is not nearly as pro-forma as it used to be.
During his final press conference earlier this week, President Bush said that when it came time "to protect the homeland" he "wouldn't worry about popularity." He would "worry about the Constitution of the United States." It wasn't clear, as it hasn't been for most of his time in office, whether his concern was directed at upholding the document or circumventing it.
So as the Obama Years are about to begin, one of the questions facing the new president is what will he do about the transgressions of the Bush Years? Will his promise to protect and defend the Constitution include an investigation into the assaults on it perpetrated by members of the Bush administration?
On change.gov, the website of the Obama transition team, there is a section where people can submit questions and readers can vote on the questions they most want the incoming administration to answer. The top question last week, receiving over 23,000 votes, came from Bob Fertik of democrats.com:
"Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor (ideally Patrick Fitzgerald) to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?"
Instead of having Obama respond to Fertik's question, change.gov posted an earlier reply from Joe Biden who had said, "President-elect Obama and I are not sitting thinking about the past... I think we should be looking forward, not backwards."
Picking up the dropped ball on Sunday, George Stephanopoulos directly asked Obama Fertik's question ("the most popular question on your own website").
Obama echoed Biden's reply: "I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards... My orientation is going to be to move forward."
Given the multiple -- and massive -- obstacles looming directly in front of him, Obama is wise not to be driving into the Oval Office looking in his rearview mirror. But I hope he will realize that moving forward and looking backwards are not mutually exclusive. Particularly if he isn't the one focused on the past.
There is no doubt that the economic crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan, health care reform, and the regulation of Wall Street should be the Obama administration's primary concerns.
But that doesn't mean we, as a country, should allow Bush and Cheney's offenses to accompany their perpetrators to a peaceful retirement in Texas and Wyoming.
That's why I am in favor of John Conyers' efforts to create a National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties -- a DC version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The new Commission would come with subpoena power, a $3 million budget, and the mandate to investigate a host of issues ranging from Guantanamo, to torture, to extraordinary rendition.
The Commission members would come from outside government -- appointed by Obama and leaders from both political parties. So the administration and Congress could continue looking and moving forward while the country avoids falling into the trap of allowing the outrages of the Bush administration to be forgotten or, worse, implicitly sanctioned.
Dawn Johnson, Obama's pick to head the Office of Legal Counsel, has eloquently made the case against turning the page and not looking back: