Those of you following the prosecution trail will be interested to know that Patrick Leahy’s Truth Commission is a no-go. I was in a meeting with Leahy and 4 other Vermonters on Monday when he broke the news to us. We had asked for the meeting to learn why he supported a Truth Commission over the appointment of a special prosecutor. Halfway through the allotted 30 minute meeting (with him taking up much of the time explaining why he was not generally opposed to prosecution, since he had been a DA for 8 years and had the highest conviction rate in Vermont) he told us that his Truth Commission had failed to get the broad support it needed in Congress, and since he couldn’t get one Republican to come behind the plan, “it’s not going to happen.”
It was a sobering exchange. The meeting had begun with our expressing serious concerns about ongoing dangers to our democracy, with the trend going to executive power while damaging our constitution. “We are a nation of laws,” said Dan DeWalt, who had helped organize 36 Vermont towns to vote for Impeachment of Bush on town meeting day. “If we have a system of justice, why not let it take its course? It seems to many Americans that the rich and powerful don’t have the same system of justice, and they’re getting away with torture, murder, fraud, and Ponzi schemes.”
By the end of the meeting, we were beginning to wonder whether anything at all was going to done — by Congress, by Attorney General Holder, by President Obama — to hold the Bush team accountable for its crimes.
Leahy’s own aversion to appointing a special prosecutors appeared to be more practical than philosophical.
“We don’t want another Abu Ghraib,” he said. “You know, ‘Boy did we get those privates and corporals. So many up on high will never get touched. Its like the war on drugs – lets get those black kids on cocaine.” So its not that he had a problem with prosecutions per se. “I just worry that the only prosecutions will be done only on middle-level people.”
Well then, what would happen to the higher ups? Leahy had hinted, on previous occasions, that the purpose of his Truth Commission was to grant immunity to those willing to testify – presumably middle level people – and we could infer from that that they, in turn, would spill the beans on their superiors. If any of the witnesses lied under oath or were less than thorough in their answers, he had told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow a month ago, they could be prosecuted for perjury. But that still left the destiny of high government officials uncertain.
Leahy had hinted to Maddow that if officials refused to honor subpoenas, they, too could be prosecuted. But in the real world, as Monday’s news suggests, the people most responsible for the crimes will continue to get off free.
We should at least be content, Leahy said, with his success in forcing former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s resignation.
After Leahy left the meeting, his aide, Chuck Ross, assured our group that there was no one more devoted to protecting the Constitution than Leahy. “He has been persistent in the face of obfuscation. He got rid of Gonzales. I would challenge you to find someone who has done more to defend the Constitution.”
Then Ross let out a memorable one-liner. “He’s all you’ve got.”
What? Leahy’s all we’ve got to protect the Constitution? And we have to accept Gonzalez’s resignation as the only punishment for years of gutting the rule of law? It took about five minutes for all this to sink in. Then fellow Vermonter John Nirenberg spoke, I think, for all of us. “If he’s the only guy, this is not a healthy situation.”
It is, perhaps, no coincidence, that at the same time Leahy downplayed the Truth Commission, Congressional aides were quoted by reporter Jason Leopold of Consortium News that “the focus has shifted to the economy and that pressure for a special prosecutor to bring criminal charges over the Bush administration’s past actions could become a distraction to that focus.” Leahy’s aide Ross had said the same thing. Everyone was focusing on the economy.
So now, it seems, the wrecked economy — compliments of the Bush Administration — is becoming the excuse for Congressional inaction after eight years of unremitting malfeasance. This is serious, folks. Appointing a Special Prosecutor had been the top issue on President Obama’s website when he took office. Either he’s not listening any more, or his supporters are “moving forward, not backward,” just as he prefers – and his right flank (the CIA, the neocons, and everyone else who has something to hide) desperately want. It remains to be seen if his huge base can get through to him on this issue, now that he occupies the White House. If they cannot, then the failure to hold even a Truth Commission, let alone prosecutions, signals a return to the same old way of doing things. Deterrence be damned.
Charlotte Dennett is a lawyer and investigative journalist. She ran for Attorney General in Vermont on a pledge to prosecute George W. Bush using state criminal statutes.