Pelosi criticizes Truth Commission as inadequate, advocates criminal prosecutions

In an MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow to air tonight, the House Speaker is surprisingly emphatic about the need for criminal investigations.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 25, 2009 7:44PM (EST)

(updated below)

This directly relates to the post I wrote earlier about Mark Benjamin's report that the Senate Judiciary Committee appear to be on the verge of creating a "Truth Commission" to investigate Bush crimes, but this is newsworthy in its own right, and so I wanted to highlight it separately:

In an interview today with Rachel Maddow -- to be broadcast on Maddow's MSNBC show tonight (and transcripts of which I've obtained) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly advocated the need for criminal prosecutions, not merely fact-finding.  She even directly criticized the proposal by Sen. Pat Leahy for a "Truth Commission," on the ground that such a Commission would improperly immunize lawbreakers and thus foreclose prosecutions:

MADDOW: This is something that liberals have really been pushing. And you have stated your support for John Conyers convening an investigation into potential lawbreaking in the Bush administration.

PELOSI: Absolutely.

MADDOW: You've been outspoken about contempt of Congress charges related to the politicization of the Justice Department and that investigation. You have been less specific about how Congress should proceed on warrantless wiretapping and torture.  Why is that? . . .

PELOSI:  Senator Leahy has a proposal, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is a good idea. What I have some concern about though is it has immunity. And I think that some of the issues involved here, like the services part, politicizing of the Justice Department, and the rest, they have criminal ramifications, and I don't think we should be giving them immunity.

Pelosi then acknowledged that the FISA bill passed by Congress in 2008 was flawed in many important respects, but said that the "part of the bill that was positive" was the requirement that the Justice Department's Inspector General investigate the NSA eavesdropping program and issue a report (due this Summer) as to the scope and legality of Bush's eavesdropping.  About that comment, Maddow asked Pelosi whether she would favor criminal prosecutions if, as many people expect, the IG Report concludes that the warrantless eavesdropping was illegal:

MADDOW:  Then in terms of your report, if the inspector general report that comes out this summer suggests that there has been criminal activity at the official level on issues like torture, or wireless wiretapping, or rendition, or any of these other issues...

PELOSI: No one is above the law. I think I have said that.

MADDOW: ... you support a call for a criminal investigation, potential investigation.

PELOSI: Absolutely.

That's pretty definitive.

Maddow then repeatedly, and rather relentlessly, asked Pelosi about how much she was told about the Bush's use of torture and about the warrantless eavesdropping program and whether her having known about those programs was an obstacle to investigations and prosecutions.  Pelosi's answers were largely evasive, but she was very emphatic -- I believe for the first time -- in claiming that while she was told by the CIA about potential "enhanced interrogation techniques" in "the abstract," she was never told that these techniques were actually being used.  She also claimed that she put up "very strong resistance" to the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program (I've never seen any evidence of such resistance at all; the only letter from Pelosi that was disclosed was one from October, 2001, which merely raised a concern over whether the NSA had presidential authorization for the program, not whether the program itself was illegal).  But what matters here is that Pelosi insists that nothing she nor any other Democrat knew or did poses an obstacle in any way to full-scale criminal investigations.

This is the kind of debate and dispute that it is good to see in the Democratic caucus and that will hopefully grow -- a debate between those (such as Leahy, Whitehouse and Conyers) who first want a "Truth Commission" to disclose Bush crimes and those (such as Pelosi, apparently) who believe that such a body is inadequate if it does not explicitly preserve the possibility of criminal prosecutions for high Bush officials and, in some circumstances (such as a finding by the IG that laws were broken), if it does not guarantee such an outcome.  It will be interesting to hear what Whitehouse, Leahy and Conyers have to say about Pelosi's criticisms of their proposed "Truth Commission."  I'll post any comment I can get from them.


UPDATE:  Here is a response I received to Pelosi's comments from Erica Chabot of Pat Leahy's office:

Senator Leahy gave a statement on the Senate Floor today on his ideas for a Commission of Inquiry.  He also announced a Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject to be held next Wednesday. He mentions prosecutions in this statement.  I have pasted it below for your reference.

I linked to the text of Leahy's speech earlier today (here).  The only argument he really makes against prosecutions is that "a failed attempt to prosecute for this conduct might be the worst result of all if it is seen as justifying abhorrent actions."  That's true for every prosecution.  Why continue to prosecute suspected murderers?  After all, they might be acquitted, and that could be seen as "justifying abhorrent actions."  Moreover, as is true for every prosecution, before doing anything, prosecutors would gather and then carefully review all of the evidence, and thereafter assess the likelihood of conviction and only bring charges if there is a substantial likelihood of success. 

Ultimately, while Whitehouse and Conyers are proposing a Truth Commission with the explicit possibility of subsequent prosecutions, and Pelosi is arguing for prosecutions now, Leahy's overt argument against prosecutions -- no matter what his "Truth Commission" finds -- is nothing more than an attempt, by definition, to place the President above and beyond the rule of law.  Whether she's sincere or not about it, it's at least good (and potentially productive) to see Pelosi being critical of such a lawless posture from the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------