President-elect Barack Obama has suggested that when it comes to investigating the Bush administration on issues such as eavesdropping or terrorist interrogations, he'd rather look forward than back. He also said over the weekend that it may take time to close the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Democrats in Congress have their own plans.
The interrogation policies that the Bush administration has used in Guantanamo include the waterboarding, or simulated drowning, of three detainees. The new chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, California's Dianne Feinstein, pointed out last week on the Senate floor that in the past, the Justice Department has actually prosecuted the use of waterboarding.
"The administration used what I believe to be faulty logic and faulty reasoning to say the waterboarding technique was not torture. In fact, it is," she said.
Obama also views waterboarding as torture. To find out who authorized its use in interrogations, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers has introduced a bill creating a bipartisan commission with subpoena power. But when Obama was asked on ABC's This Week whether he'd back such a commission, he was cautiously noncommittal.
"We're still evaluating how we're going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions and so forth," Obama said. "Obviously, we're going to be looking at past practices and 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 backward."
Some Democrats who have strongly opposed the Bush administration's detention and interrogation practices say they agree with Obama's cautious approach. Among them is the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin.
"There's a big debate going on about holding the previous administration accountable for [its] actions, and I would say for the time being that the Obama team is focused properly on the future," Durbin said. "Our economy is so weak; we're in desperate need of jobs. Before we start looking at the pages of history in the Bush administration, we should be looking at the obvious need to create jobs and create a new economic climate in this country."
You might think such talk would be disheartening to those who've been pushing for probes into warrantless wiretapping and coercive interrogations. But the American Civil Liberties Union's Caroline Fredrickson said she still has faith that much in the past will come to light.
"Everybody knows that we've got an economy in the toilet and that that is the first order of business. But these things are not inconsistent, and certainly Congress can occupy itself with multiple tasks at any one time, as it always does," Fredrickson said.
One Democratic senator who sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees said Congress does need to see the secret legal opinions drafted for Vice President Dick Cheney by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse considers those opinions a blot on the Justice Department.
"I think that there's a lot that remains to look at, and I appreciate that President Obama doesn't want to make it his purpose as a new president, with America in real distress in many directions, to go back and look at all this, but I think we in Congress have an independent responsibility, and I fully intend to discharge that responsibility," Whitehouse said.
He said he expects that should Eric Holder be confirmed as the next attorney general, he too will quickly face many questions about the Bush administration's detention policies.