Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible. "At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened," said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved "waterboarding" and other controversial practices.
Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That's one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice inquiry (absent specific new evidence of wrongdoing). "If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you'd instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship," said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration. A new commission, on the other hand, could emulate the bipartisan tone set by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton in investigating the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 panel was created by Congress. An alternative model, floated by human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, would be a presidential commission similar to the one appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975 and headed by Nelson Rockefeller that investigated cold-war abuses by the CIA.
The idea of such panels is not universally favored among Obama advisers. Some with ties to the intelligence community fear the demoralizing impact on intelligence officers, said one source who had discussions with Obama aides about the idea. But during the campaign, both Obama and Eric Holder, slated to be nominated as attorney general, sharply criticized the use of torture and the legal rulings that permitted them. Holder called some Bush counterterror policies "excessive and unlawful."
The legal rulings on interrogation are among matters being reviewed by an Obama transition team headed by David W. Ogden, once chief of staff to former attorney general Janet Reno. The team has already moved into the first floor of Justice. Detainee policies are an even stickier issue—underscored last week when a federal judge ordered the release of five Bosnians held at Guantánamo Bay. Obama is committed to shutting down Gitmo. But his advisers are wrestling with what to do about the remaining 250 detainees there, especially those considered dangerous. Obama is unlikely to continue the military tribunals started by President Bush. One idea his advisers are exploring is the creation of new national-security courts. But a spokesman for Obama's transition team said that decisions on all of these issues won't be made till after the new national-security team is in place.