Rhode Island's Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had a Joseph Welch moment during last week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on establishing a truth commission to investigate Bush administration skullduggery. In 1954 Welch famously upended red-baiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy with, "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
INSISTING ON A TRUTH COMMISSION Whitehouse and Leahy.
At last week's hearing, former Reagan and Bush 41 lawyer David Rivkin defended the most recent Bush administration's actions in the war on terror:
"Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, some bad things happened. But compared with the historical baseline of past wars, the conduct of the United States in the past eight years has been exemplary."
Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island Attorney General and federal prosecutor, countered: "I would suggest, Mr. Rivkin, that until you know, and we all know, what was done under the Bush administration, you not be so quick to throw other generations of Americans under the bus, and assume that they did worse."
Whitehouse has been front and center lambasting Bush policies and insisting on a non-partisan truth commission since Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont floated the idea last month. Leahy characterized such an inquiry as a middle way between those who would pursue an aggressive prosecution of Bush officials and those who would prefer to simply forgive and forget. The country, Leahy said, "must acknowledge what was done in our name. We cannot turn the page until we have read the page."
On the Senate floor Whitehouse spoke passionately of "the damage below the waterline of our democracy," saying the country must learn if it "descended to interrogation techniques of the inquisition, Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge."
Whitehouse heaped particular scorn upon the Office of Legal Counsel — an arm of the Justice Department that reviews executive orders (known as the "president's law firm") — "approving interrogation techniques long understood, long known to be torture."
The theme carried over into an interview with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, during which Whitehouse called the OLC "Dick Cheney's little shop of legal horrors."
The rule of law sets the United States apart from "tin-pot dictatorships where everyone does what the Generalissimo tells them," Whitehouse told Olbermann.
At least three Republican Judiciary Committee members have objected to such a commission: John Cornyn, Orrin Hatch, and Arlen Specter (who cut his teeth as a Warren Commission lawyer).
The scope of a "truth commission," if established, remains undetermined. It would likely sift through the grim laundry list of Bush administration actions that have already bubbled to the surface, such as the torture memos, extraordinary rendition, warrantless surveillance, and wiretapping, CIA destruction of interrogation tapes, as well as politically motivated firings.
Whitehouse spokeswoman Alex Swartsel said the senator is spearheading the issue because of "troubling" revelations he's been privy to while sitting on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. What's crucial to Whitehouse, Swartsel said, is that "we understand what happened," whether through a truth commission, or via other investigations already underway by the DOJ and others.
Whitehouse does not dismiss the idea of a special prosecutor.
"We also have to brace ourselves for the realistic possibility that as some of this conduct is exposed, we and the world will find it shameful, revolting," Whitehouse said on the Senate floor. "We may have to face the prospect of looking with horror at our own country's deeds."
But he maintains that such an inquiry, however painful, is crucial: "Indeed, disclosure and discussion make the difference between this history being a valuable lesson for the bright and upward forces of our democracy, or a blueprint for those darker forces to return and someday do it all over again."