President Obama gingerly retreated Tuesday from his resistance to a Congressionally-authorized commission of inquiry to investigate US detention and interrogation practices. During a photo-op with the King of Jordan, he acknowledged that it is up to Congress and the Attorney General, respectively, to decide whether to authorize a special investigatory commission, or initiate a criminal investigation of torture allegations. The President moved closer to what Amnesty and other NGOs have long been advocating — namely, not a commission composed of members of Congress, but a truly independent body consisting of internationally-recognized experts with no partisan affiliation.
Amnesty has called for a commission to be composed of “credible experts, who will be seen to be independent, impartial and objective, who command public confidence, and whose expertise includes international human rights and humanitarian law.” There are other criteria in Amnesty’s recommendations that are designed to ensure that the commission will be truly independent and nonpartisan and that it is properly resourced. These are vital ingredients to ensuring that the commission is seen as above reproach, thereby giving it a real chance of helping to heal rather than exacerbating political divisions. The President recognized this concern when he ruminated about the danger of a Congressional investigation dissolving into partisan backbiting.
Another reason the commission should be composed of nonpartisan experts is that Congress itself has arguably been complicit in the abuses that have come to light, or at the very least, has failed to conduct effective oversight. Members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, for example, don’t even have the same recollections about the extent to which they were briefed or the content of their briefings on interrogation of terror suspects. All the more reason for us to let our US Representatives and Senators know that we want them to support a nonpartisan commission of inquiry that meets Amnesty’s criteria.
Only by getting the whole truth out can we move forward by identifying how to prevent a future administration from violating our laws and treaty obligations barring torture.