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Kristen Breitweiser

Kristen Breitweiser

Posted February 23, 2009 | 10:30 AM (EST)

Just Desserts -- Sweetening President Obama on Why We Need a Truth Commission


Last month, 9/11 families were invited to the White House by President Obama to discuss the prosecution of alleged al-Qaeda operatives and Obama's intention to close GTMO within one year.

At the meeting, President Obama couldn't have been nicer. He was both accommodating and understanding. He easily spoke of such democratic principles of openness, transparency, and accountability--he even committed to criminally prosecuting individuals if credible evidence warranted doing so. (Admittedly, this question did not involve Executive administration personnel, it was asked about certain CIA agents and their role during the USS Cole bombing. Refreshing, nonetheless.)

President Obama told us everything we expected (and wanted) to hear from him given his campaign promises.

Truthfully, after shaking his hand, looking him in the eyes, and receiving his word that he would be committed to openness, transparency, and accountability, we were charmed and lulled into complacency.

So we weren't probing enough in our questioning of Obama regarding: the past overuse and misuse of the "state secrets" privilege, the swift, just, and successful prosecution of enemy combatants formerly held at places like Guantanamo and Bagram, the release of the 28 pages of the Joint Inquiry of Congress' Investigation (JICI) into the 9/11 attacks, the swift declassification of many overly-classified 9/11 documents, and the Bush administration's broad use of renditions, indefinite detentions, and torture.

Given the Obama administration's decisions in the past two weeks, we should have been more direct and demanding in receiving concrete, specific answers to our questions from the President.

Because it would seem that the Wall Street Journal's editorial page might be alarmingly correct in saying that the Bush administration's anti-terror architecture is "gaining new legitimacy" as President Obama embraces many aspects of the Bush counterterrorism "approach."

That approach includes Obama's embracing of the state secrets privilege, renditions, indefinite detentions without trial, the use of enhanced interrogation techniques when given "additional authority" to do so, and potentially the continued use of military tribunals, not to mention the lingering prospect of keeping GTMO open after a newly-issued Pentagon report ordered by President Obama found that GTMO followed the Geneva Conventions.

Who would have thought an Obama administration would be lending legitimacy to Bush counterterrorism policies?

Of course, when you rely on information gathered by the Pentagon who is responsible for the abuses that were carried out at GTMO, one wonders about the very foundation of your judgment. The same goes for relying on the CIA to tell you whether torture works in extracting valuable information from detainees. I mean really, why would the Pentagon or CIA have any reason to lie?

Next time we're invited to the WH, perhaps we'd be better off meeting with Vice President Biden instead, since he seems more willing to look towards the future while also keeping at least one judgmental eye on the past.

On September 3, 2008, ABCNews reported: Vice President Biden promised that an Obama-Biden government would go through Bush administration data with "a fine-toothed comb" and pursue criminal charges if necessary. "If there has been a basis upon which you can pursue someone for a criminal violation," he said, "they will be pursued, not out of vengeance, not out of retribution - out of the need to preserve the notion that no one, no one, no attorney general, no president, no one is above the law." Go Joe!

Of course, the only problem is the venue by which we can hold an Attorney General, a Secretary of Defense, a Vice President, or even a President accountable.

Sure, a Truth Commission like the one suggested by Senator Leahy might do. But unfortunately it seems that not enough support (or legitimacy) is gathering in this direction particularly from the Obama administration. So, please, if you support the Truth Commission sign on.

Yet, perhaps we need more than signatures to make Senator Leahy's Truth Commission more appealing?

Recently reported by the NYTimes was that the Palestinian Authority had presented a declaration to the International Criminal Court (ICC), formally accepting the Court's "jurisdiction for an indeterminate duration over acts committed on the territory of Palestine since July 1, 2002 when the Court's authority began."

The Times further reported, "lawyers say such a declaration allows for the joining of the court on an ad-hoc basis and has been allowed before in the case of Sierra Leone, which is not a member."

I'm not here to debate whether the PA should be granted jurisdiction by the ICC.

But I do think the idea of applying for ad-hoc jurisdiction from the ICC is worth pursuing as a possible approach to holding the Bush administration accountable. At a bare minimum, it's a nice way to turn up the heat and send a strong message that many of us believe in holding Bush administration officials accountable for their past criminal acts.

And clearly, if given the choice between a Truth Commission or the International Criminal Court, I would assume Leahy's Truth Commission would suddenly become the more appealing alternative for all interested parties--past or present.

Undoubtedly, Vice President Cheney wielded way too much power and influence over President Bush.

But, right now, a little influence by our new Vice President might not be such a bad thing. Vice President Biden truly understands the importance of holding people accountable for their past bad behavior--no matter who they are or how politically uncomfortable that process may be.

Back during the Clinton administration, Vice President Gore and President Clinton famously dined for lunch together weekly. Maybe it's time for that tradition to start anew. The need for Senator Leahy's Truth Commission seems like just the topic for the dessert course.