Washington was abuzz with talk of investigating the past administration but Congress and the White House were at odds. Executive branch officials were worried about the partisan fracas that would ensue. The former wanted a probe, confident that old White House hands, only recently removed from office, had engaged in a rash of criminal activity.
"We need to look at to make sure exactly what happened is known to the public and to deter any future president from doing like behavior, if it was wrong," said one well-respected member of Congress. "In that regard, if we can do it in a bipartisan fashion, I think that's what we should do. Every American benefits when you can control X abuse of power. If this was an abuse of power, then we need to know about it."
It was February 2001 not April 2009. The topic was Bill Clinton's controversial pardon of Marc Rich not the use of torture techniques on detainees. And the above quote was attributed to then-Rep. Lindsey Graham not, say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It is hardly rare for a politician to argue two sides of same issue during the course of a career in Washington. But as the current Congress contemplates investigating the use of harsh, even illegal interrogation techniques by Bush administration officials, the readjustment in political sensibilities has been somewhat remarkable. Once hell-bent on looking into the slightest hint of malfeasance during the Clinton years, Republicans inside and out of government are now responding with disgust to suggestions that even an independent commission be set up to look into the authorization and use of torture.
"What [Obama has] essentially said is if we have policy disagreements with our predecessor, we are going to do is turn ourselves into the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in weird sunglasses," said Karl Rove, during an appearance on Fox News. "Is that what we've come to in this country?"
Actually, we've been there. In the early months of 2001, as the Bush administration was publicly urging people to "look forward," Republicans in Congress were consumed by two decidedly backward-looking investigations. The most prominent of these was the controversial pardon of Rich, the fugitive financier whose ex-wife had donated heavily to Democratic causes.
This is "outrageous," said then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who called for a congressional investigation. "We should at least take a look at what happened and ask ourselves, should we take some action to try to prevent abuses that do occur?"
"Congress has an obligation to find out if this was appropriate," said House Government Reform Committee Chair Dan Burton (R-IN) on January 26. "[My] panel will obtain 'subpoenas if necessary'"
"It needs to be investigated," said then New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I think it is worthy of investigation. The facts cry out for an answer to be given for why is it that this man was pardoned. Because the pardon process is an important thing. ... Until we get the answers to this question, that whole process is put in some jeopardy of being misunderstood by the public."
"While the president alone possesses the power to pardon," said Sen. Mitch McConnell. "it's important to remember that he is not personally exempt from federal laws that prohibit the corrupt actions of all government officials."
Even some Democrats were getting involved.
"I think the important question is, is there something more Congress can do to try to express through ourselves the will of the American people about a procedure for issuing pardons," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT). "Pardon procedures should be examined."
Eight years later, these same officials view the possibility of criminal investigations -- in this case for harsh interrogation techniques as opposed to bone-headed, possibly corrupt pardons -- as anathema to basic American values.
"It would take our country in a backward-looking direction at a time when our detainee-related challenges demand that we look forward," read a letter to Barack Obama signed by Lieberman, Graham and Sen. John McCain. "Given the great challenges that face our country in dealing with detainees... we have every interest in looking forward to solutions, not backward to recriminations. That is why we do not support the idea of a commission that would focus on the mistakes of the past."
(McCain appears to be the most consistent of the three, having said of the Rich pardon back in March 2001, "I think that's a decision for the U.S. attorney to make. I think it's appropriate that the Congress wind down their investigations and move onto the issues of the day.")
Certainly, there are differences between the two presidential controversies. Clinton's pardon, as Rove might argue, was an individual choice as opposed to a government policy. As such, when Congress held hearings on the matter and the U.S. attorney's office in New York investigated it, the basis was not any particular policy disagreement.
That said, try replacing the word "pardon" with "torture" in the above quotes. At the very least, it is telling to recall just how open Republicans once were to the notion of looking back and righting past wrongs, however seemingly trivial.
Indeed, the other, less controversial investigation called for at the time was an effort to determine whether Clinton officials had trashed the Oval Office and Air Force One shortly before leaving the White House.
Former Rep. Bob Barr demanded a probe, declaring that ''the Clinton administration [had] treated the White House worse than college freshmen checking out of their dorm rooms." Former Senator Rick Santorum, meanwhile, told the Washington Times that, "there needs to be at least someone to look into it."
The GAO, at Barr's request, did just that, interviewing 78 Bush and 72 Clinton aides and tasking one employee to work on the case full-time for nearly nine months. When the results came back mixed -- the vandalism was playful at worst -- the Bush administration did not hide its displeasure. As the New York Times reported:
The Bush White House was deeply disappointed with the report. Alberto R. Gonzales, counsel to President Bush, had demanded that the accounting office provide more detail, including the full text of graffiti and other messages that were ''especially offensive or vulgar.''
The accounting office said such details were unnecessary and inappropriate. But Bush administration officials said the details would have revealed the ''mind-set or intentions'' of Clinton administration pranksters. Moreover, in a response much longer than the actual report, the Bush administration said, ''It appears that the G.A.O. has undertaken a concerted effort to downplay the damage found in the White House complex.''