WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has been reluctant to probe Bush-era torture and anti-terrorism policies, but his Democratic allies aren’t likely to let the matters rest.
“I’ve always preferred my idea of a commission of inquiry to look at all these issues,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Sunday.
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Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and head of the intelligence committee, suggested that the administration of former President George W. Bush broke the law by concealing a CIA counterterrorism program from Congress.
The Wall Street Journal, anonymously citing former intelligence officials, reported Monday the secret program was a plan to kill or capture al-Qaida operatives.
The Journal’s sources said the plan, which was halted by CIA Director Leon Panetta, was an attempt to carry out a presidential finding authorized in 2001 by Bush.
The Journal said the agency spent money on planning and maybe some training, but it never became fully operational. The plan was highly classified and the CIA has refused to comment on it.
The assertion that Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, ordered the program kept secret from Congress came amid word that Attorney General Eric Holder is contemplating opening a criminal probe of possible CIA torture.
A move to appoint a criminal prosecutor is certain to stir partisan bickering that could prove a distraction to Obama’s efforts to push ambitious health care and energy reform.
Obama has resisted an effort by congressional Democrats to establish a “truth commission,” saying the nation should be “looking forward and not backwards.”
Regarding the 8-year-old counterterrorism program, Feinstein said the Bush administration’s failure to notify Congress “is a big problem, because the law is very clear.”
Congress should investigate the secrecy because “it could be illegal,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said.
According to Feinstein, Panetta told Congress late last month that “he had just learned about the program, described it to us, indicated that he had cancelled it and ... did tell us that he was told that the vice-president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress.”
“We were kept in the dark. That’s something that should never, ever happen again,” said Feinstein.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said he agreed with Feinstein that the CIA should keep Congress informed.
But Cornyn said the new assertion “looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Pelosi has accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, which many people, including Obama, consider torture.
“This continued attack on the CIA and our intelligence gathering organizations is undermining the morale and capacity of those organizations to gather intelligence,” said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Reports about the counterterrorism program, Cheney’s role in directing its existence be kept from Congress and the attorney general’s consideration of a special prosecutor came on the eve of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
Feinstein and Cornyn spoke on “Fox News Sunday.” Durbin appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Gregg spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Leahy spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”