07/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

No Way Around an Investigation in Moving Forward

The release of legal memos justifying torture and describing in vivid detail what was done to suspected terrorists has increased pressure on President Obama to appoint a non-partisan commission to review all of the facts and provide the American people with a complete report. After implying that he might be open to such a move, the president, with the support of the Senate leadership, has suggested waiting until the Senate Intelligence Committee completes its bipartisan investigation. As laudable as that study is it cannot substitute for the complete report that only a commission appointed by the president can provide. Such a comprehensive investigation into these abuses is necessary if our nation is to regain its credibility, to repair the damage done to most basic values, and to ensure that such practices are not repeated.

In early March, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that, under the leadership of its chairperson and its ranking member, Senators Diane Feinstein and Kit Bond, it will undertake an inquiry into the CIA's detention and interrogation activities. This is an important move, and it was rightfully applauded by human rights groups. When the inquiry's report is released next year, it will provide important additional information about CIA components of these activities. The report will also compliment the bi-partisan study of the Defense Department programs just released by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

As important as these two efforts are, however, they are not substitutes for a comprehensive investigation authorized by President Barack Obama and conducted by a non-partisan commission.

The Intelligence Committee inquiry will take a year or more to complete and will suffer from significant limitations. Restrictions on the Committee's jurisdiction will narrow the inquiry to activities conducted by the CIA itself. The Committee inquiry will not, therefore, examine the role of the White House, including the role of Vice President Dick Cheney, in initiating the programs. The Committee's inquiry will not examine relations between the White House, the Justice Department, and the CIA in the development of the "legal justifications" for the detention and interrogation program and the drafting of the legal memorandum, which have just been made public. The inquiry will not consider the relationship between the CIA's program and the programs conducted by the Defense Department. The inquiry will not extend to the FBI's role in the interrogation program or its communications with the CIA regarding the program. The inquiry will neither examine relations with other governments in implementing the detention and interrogation programs nor the impact these programs have had on United States relations with other countries.

The Intelligence Committee inquiry will consider "whether the CIA implemented the program in compliance with official guidance" and will include an evaluation of the intelligence information the program yielded. These are important issues. But there is no indication that the scope of the Committee's inquiry will cover a question that is more crucial: whether this guidance complied with United States law and the country's treaty obligations. It is also not clear whether the inquiry's evaluation of the intelligence gained will take into account the negative impact the detention and interrogation program had on a variety of issues, including cooperation of foreign governments in our anti-terrorism efforts as well as the recruitment of new terrorists.

In addition, the Committee's inquiry covers only detention and interrogation and does not deal with the issue of rendition to torture. This is another critical program about which the American people are entitled to the full story.

Moreover, the Senate Intelligence Committee traditionally holds its inquiries behind closed doors. There is no reason to think this investigation will be any different. A press release describing the inquiry says it "will consist of extensive document review and interviews as are necessary." The Intelligence Committee interviews are likely to be confined largely, if not entirely, to CIA personnel. There may be no hearings at all and almost certainly not public ones.

The American public needs a more comprehensive examination of the Bush administration's policies and how the United States Government stooped to the torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. And the public should hear directly, in open-door hearings, from victims of the detention, rendition, and torture.

The nation can put this miserable chapter of its history behind it. But only if a comprehensive investigation is undertaken by a small, nonpartisan commission of well-respected figures is appointed, holds public hearings, reports publicly, and has its recommendations implemented.