Just the facts, please

When both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Dick Cheney call for the same national response to torture issues — wider release of information about just what happened during the past eight years — it should be enough to make President Barack Obama reconsider his opposition to a commission that would do just that.

Even more to the point, when both Pelosi and Cheney give Americans reason to question their versions of just what happened during the past eight years, the need for such a commission seems even stronger.

Because it really would be nice — or maybe we could use another phrase, such as "morally essential" — to know what actually happened.

Over the past week, Pelosi has gotten herself into an awkward tangle about just what she knew about waterboarding and when she knew it. At the time the ranking minority member of the House intelligence committee, she has said that she didn't know about waterboarding, she has said she did know, and she has said that the CIA deceived her and the rest of Congress. Any or all of these statements might be true; some members agree with Pelosi's account, others disagree, and the CIA response has been squishy.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on the Senate intelligence committee since 2001, says that he was told nothing until 2006, and whatever Pelosi was or wasn't told, the administration violated the National Security Act of 1947 requiring notification of the entire membership of the Senate and House committees.

"The idea that we were kept in the loop," he said Tuesday, "is just disconnected from reality."

An aggressive examination of what happened — not by members of Congress looking to justify themselves, not by prosecutors looking for indictments — could answer some vital questions about how well the Bush administration fulfilled its responsibilities to keep Congress informed, and about how well Congress carried out its responsibilities of oversight. The questions about what we need to know don't stop at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Former Vice President Cheney, sounding not at all like the official who created a new classification for secrecy, lately has been demanding the declassification of lots of documents that he says would show "enhanced interrogation" saved as many as "hundreds of thousands" of American lives. Again, that's the kind of thing a commission might help us find out.

But Cheney statements raise other questions. Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers reported that in 2004, the vice president told the Rocky Mountain News, "The (al Qaida-Iraq) links go back. We know for example from interrogating detainees in Guantanamo that al-Qaida sent individuals to Baghdad to be trained in C.W. (chemical warfare) and B.W. (biological warfare) technology, chemical and biological weapons technology. These are all matters that are there for anybody who wants to look at it."

They were also completely untrue, and apparently an indication that someone being waterboarded dozens of times will tell you what you want to hear regardless of its accuracy.

To make future judgments and decisions about how we treat prisoners — and intelligence — Americans need all these issues examined. We don't need political winners and losers, the goal of congressional investigations. We don't need indictments that will poison the country and extend a spitting match for years.

"What's needed," says Wyden, "is an infusion of good facts" — which he says the Senate intelligence committee is amassing. But we're likely to need something more public.

Because we really do need to know just what happened.

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