Despite a formidable to-do list, the next president is being urged by some fellow Democrats and human rights groups to investigate the Bush administrations possible transgressions of law.
That would be a bad mistake.
Its not to say that the Bush administration did not flaunt its disdain for civil liberties, torture prisoners illegally, hold detainees without counsel, dissemble about the reasons for going to war in Iraq which had not attacked America, mishandle the war and broadly disobey the intent of the law on business regulation, environmental protection and consumer protection.
As Barack Obama enters the White House, 66 percent of Americans approve of him and 77 percent like him personally, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. After the contentious campaign, that is a remarkable feat. It also indicates that Americans are glad to be bidding farewell to George W. Bush as president; the same poll shows 27 percent approve of the job he has done and 67 percent disapprove.
The new administration says water boarding (near drowning of suspected terrorists) is torture, is illegal and did not work to gain accurate information. The outgoing administration admitted engaging in water boarding, denying it was torture. One of the administrations own judges said the United States used torture.
The new administration denies that presidential powers assumed by Bush in the war on terror are unreviewable, as the outgoing administration claims.
The new administration disavows the methods and use of military commissions for prisoners at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, vowing to close it. The outgoing administration defended its methods and policies there.
The new administration says warrant less wiretapping on U.S. soil is illegal. The outgoing administration staunchly defended it.
Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, argue that the United States has a moral duty to disavow tactics used by the Bush administration, such as rendition sending prisoners to third countries to be tortured.
The incoming attorney general, Eric Holder, says mistakes were made after the 9/11 attacks by al Qaida but that criminalizing past policy decisions is not an option for the new administration. He pledged the United States will lead by strength, wisdom and example, not torture or recrimination.
Some Democrats have said that to clear the air and send the proper signals abroad that the United States is entering a new period of diplomacy and negotiation and a return to its old principles, an independent investigation of the past eight years is vital.
Obama said on the ABC show "This Week:” "We’re still evaluating how were going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. My instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation is going to be to move forward.”
His instinct is right. But as new presidential aides and new Cabinet officers take their places, they will see for themselves the facts of what the Bush administration did in office and the extent of potentially illegal acts in the name of fighting terrorism. They may try to put pressure on the new president to initiate an investigation, if only to distance the new administration from the acts of the old one.
The facts will come out. We already are seeing unsettling disclosures from former Bush aides. Historians will get at the truth about Bush’s legacy. But we cannot afford the distraction, time or energy that would be required to be invested in anti-Bush investigations. They probably wouldn’t result in convictions for criminality anyway.
With our economy falling apart, with Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the deplorable situation in Gaza and with Iran working to acquire nuclear weapons, we do not have the luxury of turning backward.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)