Angry Democrats no longer accept President Barack Obama’s reluctance to pursue the illegality of former President Bush’s torture, spying and anti-terrorism excesses and will push hard for full investigations into the actions of the previous administration.
With Attorney General Eric Holder breaking ranks from the President and contemplating a criminal probe of CIA torture of prisoners, other Democrats want Bush and his cronies investigated and, if possible, charged.
Leading the charge are two influential Democrats: Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Intelligence Committee.
"I’ve always preferred my idea of a commission of inquiry to look at all these issues," Leahy said Sunday.
Feinstein said the Bush administration broke the law by concealing a CIA counterterrorism program from Congress.
The assertion that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the concealment came amid word that Attorney General Eric Holder is contemplating opening a criminal probe of possible CIA torture.
A move to appoint a criminal prosecutor is certain to stir partisan bickering that could prove a distraction to Obama’s efforts to push ambitious health care and energy reform.
Obama has resisted an effort by congressional Democrats to establish a "truth commission," saying the nation should be "looking forward and not backwards."
Regarding the 8-year-old counterterrorism program, Feinstein said the Bush administration’s failure to notify Congress "is a big problem, because the law is very clear."
Congress should investigate the secrecy because "it could be illegal," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.
According to Feinstein, CIA director Leon Panetta told Congress late last month that "he had just learned about the program, described it to us, indicated that he had canceled it and … did tell us that he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress."
"We were kept in the dark. That’s something that should never, ever happen again," said Feinstein.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he agreed with Feinstein that the CIA should keep Congress informed. But Cornyn said the new assertion "looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover" to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Pelosi has accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, which many people, including Obama, consider torture.
"This continued attack on the CIA and our intelligence gathering organizations is undermining the morale and capacity of those organizations to gather intelligence," said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Reports about the counterterrorism program, Cheney’s role in directing its existence be kept from Congress and the attorney general’s consideration of a special prosecutor came on the eve of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
A Justice Department official told The Associated Press that Holder will decide in the next few weeks whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation practices. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on a pending matter.
In response to the report, Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said Saturday that Holder planned to "follow the facts and the law" and noted that Holder has said that "it would be unfair to prosecute any official who acted in good faith based on legal guidance from the Justice Department."
Feinstein and Cornyn spoke on "Fox News Sunday." Durbin appeared on ABC’s "This Week." Gregg spoke on CNN’s "State of the Union." Leahy spoke on CBS’ "Face the Nation."
Compiled from staff and wire sources. Associated Press writers Pete Yost and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.