Liberally Speaking2/19/09

The problem with the truth

Feb. 19, 2009

By Steve Mount

When Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy starts talking about truth-telling, people start to get squirmy. It’s odd — truth-telling should be a goal for all of us, but especially for public servants, for our elected representatives.

Leahy has a plan to create a Truth Commission, to place in the sunlight the most controversial acts of the Bush administration. There are several goals in such exposure. First, exposure gives us a chance to take a sober look at what happened and decide for ourselves if it was all necessary.

Second, exposure shows us places where our system of checks and balances might have failed, and shows where the underpinnings of that system might need to be reinforced.

Lastly, exposure shows the rest of the world that we can admit our mistakes and rise above them.

But when President Barack Obama was asked about the establishment of a Truth Commission, his response was, as described by the Associated Press, “lukewarm.”

I understand Obama’s reticence. He wants to place laser-like focus on the economy right now, putting policies in place to create and maintain jobs, to ensure that struggling homeowners stay in their homes, to get credit flowing. These are all critically important, and he’s loath to support any distraction from those goals.

“My view is also that nobody’s above the law,” Obama said last week, “and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen … but my general orientation is to say let’s get it right moving forward.”

I’m in general agreement with the president’s conclusion here — that we need to move forward. However, I agree more with his statement that no one is above the law and people should be held accountable for wrongdoing.

Basically, there are three schools of thought on the whole issue. One was voiced by former Bush aide Mark Thiessen, who said that such a commission would expose the facts about American interrogation techniques, exposure that would be “terribly dangerous.”

Those kinds of remarks make me incredulous. Are you honestly saying that violations of American law, international law and basic human rights should not be exposed because Al Qaeda would then know what we did? This creates an institutional loophole for abuses of power. Cloak the abuses in “national security” and the abuses become un-checkable.

The second school of thought says that we must prosecute everyone from the people who performed torture and should have refused to, all the way up to the person who explicitly or tacitly authorized the torture itself.

Beyond the feeling that justice needs to be served, constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley points out that we have treaty obligations in place in regards to investigating allegations of torture. Turley supports prosecutions, but is incredulous himself over Obama’s lack of support for even a Truth Commission.

“I have great respect for (Obama),” Turley said, “but you cannot say that no one is above the law and block the investigation of the war crimes by your predecessor. It is a position without principle.”

Despite my sense of justice, though, I cannot imagine actual trials having the effect that Leahy’s Truth Commission would have. Those who would be prosecuted would undoubtedly be the lowest-level worker bees, who are actually the least culpable. The prosecution of someone at the level of a department secretary, or even higher, would drag on for years, tangled in so much red tape and black redaction that we might never get the answers we need.

That leaves us with the third school, Leahy’s school. Forget about prosecution — let’s just get it out there. Tell the truth about wire tapping, about political hiring and firing in the Justice Department, about bad intelligence. Tell the truth about torture.

According to Mary Robinson, president of the International Commission of Jurists, our actions are being used as justification by other nations: “We were getting evidence of practices of torture, et cetera … Somehow the laws had changed, the situation had changed, and when we countered that, they would say, well look what’s happening in the United States … Our concern was that countries that were champions of upholding the rule of law had compromised those standards in the name of countering terrorism.”

We should never have compromised those standards. It seems pretty clear that we did. The perpetrators should be punished, but that just may not be practical. At the very least, we should learn the truth, so that we can keep it from happening again.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at