Katherine Tiedemann is a Program Associate with the New America Foundation’s Nuclear Strategy & Nonproliferation Initiative.
During Jane Mayer’s event Tuesday at New America promoting her penetrating new book, The Dark Side, a topic came up during the Q & A that I’d like to expand on–the possibility of establishing a truth commission for the Bush administration’s transgressions. The idea has been getting some play recently, both from Nick Kristof in the New York Times and scattered across some blogs (a funny parody here, another suggestion here), and alluded to by Scott Paul. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is generally held up as the model for such bodies, which don’t have formal judicial power but instead serve primarily as instruments for the discovery of past wrongdoings by governments.
So far, when each instance of misconduct has been revealed — from the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes and waterboarding to extraordinary renditions and habeas-corpus-free detention of prisoners at Guantanamo — individual solutions have been sought and some individual actors have been put forth to be held accountable. But this approach is piecemeal at best and does not get at the connective tissue and the systematization of abuses.
A truth commission, however, would provide a more holistic approach to the violations that have been committed or ordered by individuals and agencies within the government. A commission would serve as an opportunity to look back and expose where the administration started to go wrong in its decision-making process; allow those whose rights have been violated to be heard; and give Americans on the whole a chance to cleanse our national conscience–and our image abroad.
This really cannot be done by journalists alone. Jane Mayer commented that she has “subpoena envy” as a reporter and often has to beg for documents; a truth commission would bypass this poverty of access because it would have the power to subpoena relevant individuals and organizations for their testimonies and records.
And there is still much to be uncovered. Although Mayer’s new book and other writings provide important details about the different programs the Bush administration instituted in the panicky atmosphere in the aftermath of September 11, she herself is the first to admit that there is still much that is unknown. Of particular interest to Mayer is the role of physicians and psychiatrists in interrogation — she recounts instances in her book, and in this interview with Scott Horton of Harper’s, of doctors being present or at the ready during the euphemistically titled “harsh interrogations” and wonders, as I do, who these doctors are and should they be permitted the keep their licenses, having flagrantly broken the Hippocratic oath.
Not everyone agrees, of course. One prominent argument against establishing a truth commission for the Bush administration is, according to Mayer, the country’s lack of political will to prosecute officials who could claim they were defending Americans against an existential threat. But with Tuesday’s release of the first video from Guantanamo added to many previously disclosed examples of prisoner abuse, the time has long come to stop this abhorrent institutionalization of maltreatment of those in our custody. September 11 should not have given the government a carte blanche to warrantless wiretap, reinterpret the Constitution according to David Addington, and expand the powers of the presidency beyond Nixonian levels. Surely a truth commission would go at least part of the way toward righting the laundry list of wrongs that have been carried out in the name of national security over the last seven years.
– Katherine Tiedemann
Note: This piece has been reposted from The American Strategist.