WASHINGTON - Even as Americans struggle with two wars and an economy in tatters, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds majorities in favor of investigating some of the thorniest unfinished business from the Bush administration: Whether its tactics in the "war on terror" broke the law.
Close to two-thirds of those surveyed said there should be investigations into allegations that the Bush team used torture to interrogate terrorism suspects and its program of wiretapping U.S. citizens without getting warrants. Almost four in 10 favor criminal investigations and about a quarter want investigations without criminal charges. One-third said they want nothing to be done.
Even more people want action on alleged attempts by the Bush team to use the Justice Department for political purposes. Four in 10 favored a criminal probe, three in 10 an independent panel, and 25% neither.
The ACLU and other groups are pressing for inquiries into whether the Bush administration violated U.S. and international bans on torture and the constitutional right to privacy. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and his Senate counterpart, Patrick Leahy, have proposed commissions to investigate.
Asked Monday about Leahy's plan, President Obama said he would look at it. He added, "my general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward." Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have declined to rule out prosecutions. Leon Panetta, named to head the CIA, said this month that CIA officers would not be prosecuted for harsh interrogations authorized by the Bush White House.
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Leahy, D-Vt., this week proposed a "truth commission" to assemble facts. He said the panel could offer immunity from prosecution for everything but perjury. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened and why," he said.
Conyers, D-Mich., has called for a panel that would gather facts and make recommendations, and could possibly lead to prosecutions. "This isn't payback," he said. "We are getting things straightened out for the future."
The Republican viewpoint was summed up recently by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "If every administration started to re-examine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it," he said. "This is not Latin America."
The politics of any investigation would be delicate. "You'd need people who haven't made up their minds," says Tom Kean, a Republican who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission.