Congress Will Test Obama's New Tone

Congress Will Test Obama's New Tone

By Kimberley Strassel - January 23, 2009

President Barack Obama has called for an end to "the petty grievances" and "recriminations" of Washington. John Conyers intends to find out if the new president really means it.

Mr. Conyers, the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has spent years gearing up for a Bush administration witch hunt. Backed by a mob of congressional liberals, outside groups, and the New York Times, he's counting on this new president to play along with payback. Consider it the first test of Mr. Obama's promise of a new civility.

Mr. Conyers's own notion of civility has included holding no less than 70 hearings into Bush programs. Last year, he and 55 House Democrats demanded the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to conduct a criminal investigation into Bush interrogation policies. This year, they expect the incoming administration to finally give them satisfaction.

Mr. Conyers also just introduced legislation to establish a Soviet-style "truth commission" to investigate (for starters) interrogations, wiretapping, Valerie Plame, Iraq intelligence, and the firing of U.S. attorneys. The body would be vested with a big budget and subpoena power. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with no hint of a smirk, explained her party had a duty to the "truth."

Over in the Senate, Carl Levin released a creative-writing report in December that purported to show the Bush administration's legal responsibility for "abusive" interrogations. This was designed to pressure the new administration to climb on board with "war crimes" trials of officials like former Justice official John Yoo, who were trying to keep the country safe. Senate Democrats are also busy snooping for Republicans to sign on to the "truth commission," to ward off a GOP filibuster. The name John McCain keeps popping up.

Truth commissions and special prosecutors are just the beginning of the left's demands. Congress is mulling document requests from agencies Mr. Obama now runs. They want the president to pressure Justice attorneys to produce prosecutions out of current investigations, like that of destroyed CIA tapes. They are using Mr. Obama's own words to push the president. America can't reclaim its "moral authority" without a commission, says Mr. Conyers. It's necessary to "move forward," says the ACLU.

Mr. Obama's own idea of moving forward, according to a recent interview, does not include "looking backwards." This was a tone the president first struck on the campaign trail, and as other problems have piled up, he's proven increasingly reluctant to commit political capital to an exercise in retribution.

And no wonder. Aside from the fact it's wrong, it holds no upside.

Mr. Obama has pledged, for starters, to set a new tone. He has publicly worried that Bush investigations would be viewed by Republicans as a "partisan witch hunt." (You think?) Any "truth commission" will undoubtedly pass on a strict party line vote, and with that passage will evaporate any good will.

Then there's the public. If Mr. Bush gets credit for anything, it's keeping the nation safe after 9/11. This helps explains why, despite all the left-wing outrage over Guantanamo, the facility to this day is supported by more Americans than those who oppose it. The sight of triumphant Democrats humiliating little-known Bush aides will not play well. As for a special prosecutor, Mr. Obama might want to ring Lawrence Walsh and ask him how well that Iran-Contra investigation played.

The president probably also knows that there is little left to know, and that any further discussion will come back to him -- and his party. We'll all get to hear again just how many times senior Democrats were briefed on interrogations, and just how many times they did nada. Mr. Obama will get to explain, again, why he voted for the Bush wiretapping program.

The probes could go deep and result in a purge of capable hands from his own national security structure. The CIA, already edgy over Leon Panetta, will view further investigations of their own as an excuse to mutiny. Mr. Obama presented a hawkish tone in his inaugural because he has a lot to prove. He's already sacrificing vital tools (Gitmo, CIA detentions) to placate the left. He's going to need what's left to function.

His problem is that this isn't an issue on which he can easily split the baby. He might be tempted (as might we all) to just keep Mr. Conyers busy with these investigations. He might think he can avoid administration entanglement. But unless checked, Democrats will keep on this road until he is presented with a "truth commission" bill. At which point Mr. Conyers will get his answer about Mr. Obama's civility, in front of the entire nation.

If Mr. Obama is as averse to this charade as he seems to be, he'd be better off making Rahm Emanuel earn his pay. The fellow Chicagoan was brought in to soothe his former congressional colleagues, or, barring that, scream them into submission. The president's best bet is shut this down soon, and quietly -- before he no longer can.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Kimberley Strassel

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