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Congress: Who's Accountable For Torture Memos?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Yes, the release of those memos on interrogation methods has set off jousting on Capitol Hill over just who should be held accountable. NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: Finding answers to who authorized the torture memos and what they led to has been the talk of Capitol Hill this week. But that was not the case six weeks ago. That's when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called a hearing to look into the detention and interrogation policies of the Bush administration.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I believe that it might best be accomplished through a non-partisan commission of inquiry. I'd like to see this done in a manner that removes it from partisan politics. Such a commission of inquiry would shed light on what mistakes were made so that we can learn from these errors and not repeat them.

WELNA: Only four other senators from the 18-member committee even bothered to attend the hearing. Leahy's idea of a non-partisan commission of inquiry, it seemed, was going nowhere. It didn't help that President Obama, when asked about such a commission at his first White House news conference, said he generally preferred looking forward, not back.

But then on Tuesday, the president revived the idea of an independent commission. He said if Congress did seek further accounting, that's the way he'd like to see it done. It's not what South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wanted to hear.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I think the president had it right initially when he said we should look forward, not backward. I don't think any American would want to prosecute a CIA agent who administered interrogation techniques that were approved by higher-ups, even though now we believe they were extreme and inappropriate.

WELNA: There already is a congressional probe into what CIA interrogators actually did. It was announced by the Senate Intelligence Committee the day after Leahy's independent commission hearings seemed to flop. Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein says staff investigators are closely examining the interrogations of more than two-dozen high-value detainees.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California: At the end of it, we should have a very good chronology of exactly what happened, how it happened and whether it was within the law, whether it was not within the law, what the orders were, all of that. And it's very important that it be done in a classified arena.

WELNA: That bipartisan inquiry being carried out behind closed doors won't be completed until the end of the year. And it's won the endorsement of some of President Obama's closest allies, including Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. Even though he sits on Leahy's Judiciary Committee, Durbin does not share the chairman's enthusiasm for an independent commission.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I really think what we need is a complete and thorough investigation about everything that led up to this and where we are today. Senator Feinstein's doing that. I've been in contact with her and members of the committee. And before we recommend any action against those who are responsible for this policy at the highest levels, I think we ought to let her finish her work.

WELNA: Any prosecutions that might arise from the torture memos would likely end up in the courts. But Congress does have the power to sanction Jay Bybee, who signed two of the memos. That's because Bybee has a lifetime appointment as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was confirmed for that post six years ago by the U.S. Senate without disclosing that he'd sign those memos while heading the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

There are growing calls by congressional Democrats to impeach Bybee and remove him from the federal bench. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy says it would not necessarily have to come to that.

Sen. LEAHY: If the White House and Mr. Bybee had told the truth at the time of his nomination, he never would've been confirmed. So, actually, the honorable and decent thing for him to do now would be to resign. If he is an honorable and decent man, he will.

WELNA: In Bybee's defense, his Republican allies point out that because the torture memos were classified, he could hardly had disclosed them to Congress.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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