But, first, the Obama administration knew that it would be coming into office facing two wars in progress, a massive, massive financial crisis, $1 trillion deficit and all of the other stuff that got worse or did not get fixed during the previous administration. That‘s what the presidential campaign was all about.
What they seemingly did not expect was the insistence and proliferation of calls to investigate and to prosecute, if necessary, officials from the previous administration who may have committed crimes while in office. It seems clear that this is not how the Obama administration expected to be spending their first term but it also seems clear that this is an issue that is not going away. And the calls are getting more insistent, not less, as time goes by. And the calls are coming from political players who are the kind of people a president might find hard to ignore, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, say.
Last night, at his first press conference, the president was asked to respond to a new proposal from Senate Judiciary chairman, Patrick Leahy, a proposal that a truth commission be convened to investigate the Bush era. Chairman Leahy had said at a speech at Georgetown, quote, “The straightforward mission would be to find the truth. People would be told to come forward and share their knowledge and experiences"not for the purposes of constructing criminal indictments but to assemble the in facts. Such a process could involve authority to obtain immunity from prosecutions.”
Well, now that Senator Obama"excuse me, President Obama has said that he will look into Senator Leahy‘s proposal, there‘s a really important question about this proposal that needs answering. Is Senator Leahy trying to help out the Obama administration here, which does not seem necessarily inclined toward prosecuting Bush administration officials? Is this a way to take prosecutions off the table but doing it in a way that will shush the insistent, persistent claims that prosecutions ought to be pursued?
Or"is Senator Leahy proposing something that actually would clear the way for potential prosecutions by saying that the last and only get-out-of-jail-free card for Bush officials will be for them to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to this commission? Anyone refusing would be fair criminal investigation game.
I spoke with Senator Leahy earlier today about his proposal, and his answers to my questions may surprise you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: You‘re going to have people, some people will say, “Let‘s go ahead and prosecute everybody.” That can take 10 or 15 years. Others want to ignore everything"I don‘t agree with that. But this might be a middle ground where we could at least find out what happened.
When I first came to the Senate, Frank Church had just had a commission like that, looked into the spying on anti-war protesters, some of the abuses of both the FBI and CIA, and just bringing the matters to light and brought about some much needed reforms and changes that lasted for a couple decades. I think we have to do the same thing here, because there were abuses of the law. There were things done that America should not be doing, and let‘s find out about it.
MADDOW: What if a truth commission did a thorough investigation of the type that you‘re describing and they found that, in fact, horrible crimes were committed? If there wouldn‘t be prosecution, how would say"how would saying, “Well, now we know,” and they all legally got away with it"how would that stop these things from happening again?
LEAHY: I think the fact that because it‘s very, very public, and the
way they find out about it, it makes it very clear to the next person"
you try the same thing, you are going to be found out, and you are going to
be prosecuted. You are also going to have some people that will refuse to
perhaps refuse to testify, even though offered immunity. But with the evidence gathered from the others, they can be prosecuted. And, of course, anybody can be prosecuted for perjury.
It‘s not"I‘m a former prosecutor"it‘s not a perfect way of doing it, but it may be the only way to get the truth out. And I think that the only way you‘re going to stop a future administration from being tempted to do some of the same things if the truth has come out. It‘s already been done on the torture issue with some of the military commissions when immunity has been granted. The House has already granted immunity, House of Representatives‘ immunity to each"to a couple of witnesses.
And you either grant enough immunity to get the truth out or you don‘t get it at all, because otherwise, you are just going to have constant stonewalling.
MADDOW: Just to be clear, you would suggest that you would offer immunity in exchange for prosecution"in exchange for testifying if need be, immunity from prosecution. But if people still elected to not testify, that immunity, obviously, would not apply to them .
MADDOW: . and there could be"they could be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution?
LEAHY: That‘s right. The only way they would have immunity would be if they testified and testified thoroughly. Because they would be asked under oath, “Have you given us all of the information?” You withhold, that‘s perjury, and you‘d be prosecuted for that.
MADDOW: During his confirmation hearings, some Republicans tried to get now Attorney General Eric Holder to promise that he would not prosecute Bush administration officials. I wonder if you had any discussions about your middle ground truth commission proposal with your Republican colleagues, if you had any reaction to them.
LEAHY: Well, I tried to tell them. They say, “Oh, it‘d be terrible to investigate a former president‘s administration. We would never do that.” I said, “You spent six years doing that to the Clinton administration. You had thousands of hours, spent tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, investigating then former President Clinton.”
This makes about as much sense as those who say, “Oh, you know, we voted to get us into this economic mess, and we can‘t vote to get us out of this economic mess.” If I was --- if I was a cynic, I would say it was hypocritical. But being a kind, benevolent person, I say it‘s just"they‘re being forgetful.
MADDOW: The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and the House Judiciary chairman, John Conyers, have made comments on these"on the same strategic considerations that you are considering with this truth commission proposal. Nancy Pelosi has said that she‘s open to the idea of investigations, possibly prosecutions if necessary. Judiciary Chairman John Conyers in the House says he does want an independent criminal probe.
Do you see the three of you as sort of being on the same page here, maybe differences of degree of focus, differences of emphasis"or do you actually think there are disagreements between your proposals?
LEAHY: No, I think we have all the same goal and that is to find out what happened"maybe use different methods to do it but let‘s find out what happened. Again, I use the example of what Senator Frank Church did when he found out they had"the FBI and CIA investigating people whose only crime was protesting the war in Vietnam.
Now, we saw some touches of this hearing I held with former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. The press accounts had been"they sent out camera crews to record people protesting. They found Quakers who protested the war. I said, “News flash, Quakers always protest war.” You sent a crew to find war protesters in Vermont, I said, you could have saved money. I was protesting the war on the Senate floor, you just turn on CSPAN.
MADDOW: Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Thank you for your time, sir.
LEAHY: Thank you very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: I conducted that interview with Senator Leahy earlier this afternoon and I have since spent the rest of the day trying to put his answers in context. As far as I can tell, we now got the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee proposing that any Bush administration official who wouldn‘t testify and tell the truth commission the whole truth about potential Bush-era crimes, those officials should be considered fair game for criminal investigation and prosecution if the facts warrant.
We‘ve also got the House Judiciary chairman, John Conyers, who has called for an independent criminal investigation into the Bush administration‘s detention and interrogation and surveillance policies. We‘ve got the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who said last month that she supports investigation of potential Bush-era crimes and prosecutions if the facts so dictate. We‘ve got Rhode Island senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, a former federal prosecutor, saying that Congress has an independent responsibility to investigate alleged crimes by Bush-era officials and he said he intends to discharge that responsibility.
We‘ve got news that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he would support funding for additional inquiries into Bush-era activities by Senate committees. We‘ve got senators Barbara Boxer and Carl Levin, who each voiced support on this very TV show for investigations of Bush-era potential crimes. As did Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who said Congress‘ responsibility to investigate the Bush administration is, as Senator Whitehouse said, independent of whatever the administration decides to do about this subject.
All of this from Congress even as the new attorney general, Eric Holder, refuses to rule out the possibility of prosecutions.
I think that what we have stumbled into here is an unexpected but rather blatant emerging consensus among powerful Democrats in Washington that alleged Bush-era crimes should be investigated and if need be, prosecuted. Do they mean it? Are they blowing smoke? Is this just designed to make everyone shut up about prosecutions because the Obama administration doesn‘t want to deal with this right now?
Well, over to you, Mr. President. Over to you, Mr. Attorney General. Over to you, congressional leadership. And"well, over to you, concerned, inconvenienced citizen.