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Democrats Split Over Leahy's Call for Bush Administration 'Truth' Commission

Patrick Leahy

Sen. Pat Leahy is running into stiff resistance from conservatives -- and a mixed response from liberals -- as he pursues a "truth commission" to investigate the alleged abuses of the Bush administration

The Vermont Democrat, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pitched the idea last week during a speech at Georgetown University, saying the commission would not pursue criminal indictments but would launch a fact-finding mission to "learn the truth" about the Bush years. 

He said the commission would strike the "middle ground" between those who want to prosecute Bush officials for alleged violations of civil liberties and the politicization of the Justice Department and those who want to resist any inquiries into the past eight years. Leahy has since launched an online petition that has garnered more than 26,000 signatures. 

Republicans have spoken out against the idea, and reaction from Democrats has been mixed.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who supports pursuing allegations of torture, said officials should not be "afraid" to use the existing infrastructure, including the Department of Justice and statutes already on the books to investigate and punish anyone who broke the law. 

"I don't know if we require a formal new commission to do that," Reed told MSNBC.

Other Democrats say the proposal is no good because it doesn't go far enough. 

Bob Fertik, co-founder of Democrats.com, wrote on his Web site: "I truly do not understand the distinct minority of 'liberals' who would rather 'learn the truth' about George Bush's most heinous crimes than prosecute them. And when I read the 'arguments' for a 'Truth Commission,' all I see are fallacies." 

But other Democrats, including President Obama, have suggested that an investigation of the Bush administration would be too divisive. Obama declined to endorse the idea of a "truth commission" at his prime-time press conference last week. 

"My view is also that nobody's above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards," Obama said. 

"So I will take a look at Senator Leahy's proposal, but my general orientation is to say let's get it right moving forward," he said. 

Leahy said the commission could look at matters ranging from the firings of U.S. attorneys, interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects and the authorization of warrantless wiretapping. 

A poll conducted last week by USA Today/Gallup found that nearly two-thirds of Americans polled want some kind of investigation into whether the Bush administration allowed terrorism suspects to be tortured. But they were split on what form that investigation should take. 

Thirty-eight percent said a criminal investigation would be best; 24 percent called for an independent panel. Thirty-four percent said neither option should be pursued. 

Asked about the proposal Thursday, Leahy told FOX News, "I don't see it as partisan to find out what happens." 

Leahy has attracted at least one prominent supporter behind his idea. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) promptly released a statement last week praising his colleague. 

"Getting all the facts out about what happened over the last eight years is a crucial part of restoring the rule of law," Feingold said. "There needs to be accountability for wrongdoing by the Bush administration, including the illegal warrantless wiretapping and interrogation programs. We cannot simply sweep these assaults on the rule of law under the rug." 

But Republicans say a commission would be nothing more than a witch hunt. 

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith told The Associated Press that Leahy's proposal amounts to a scheme to "unjustly malign former Bush administration officials." 

Smith also opposes House Democrats' efforts to subpoena former Bush adviser Karl Rove

"For all their talk about change, House Democrats just can't seem to move on from their party line of blaming Bush. They've developed an unhealthy fixation on re-fighting lost battles, even at the expense of the American taxpayer," Smith said in a written statement.

Marc Thiessen, Bush's former speechwriter, told FOX News the Leahy commission could be "very deadly" and "terribly dangerous" because the investigation could air the techniques the U.S. government uses not only to interrogate terrorism suspects, but also to intercept e-mails and telephone calls. 

"And when you get those facts out, it's not just going out to the American people and to the viewers on television. It's going out to Usama bin Laden," he said.