When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, Americans accepted his explanation that the move was necessary for national security. But Americans did not know – and did not learn for nearly 40 years – just how flimsy was the military’s claimed justification for trampling on civil liberties.
In fact, reports prepared for Roosevelt by naval intelligence and by the State Department concluded that the vast majority of Japanese and Japanese American were – as one of the reports put it – “pathetically loyal” to the United States. And no less a domestic security hawk than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed the internment, writing to the attorney general that no evidence of disloyalty had been found among Japanese Americans.
The evidence from those buried government documents emerged in the 1980s. It served as the basis for reopening the trials and overturning the convictions of, among others, Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi. And it also provides the basis for what is now history’s judgment about the internments. They were doubly wrong: as unnecessary for national defense as they were unacceptable as legal policy.
History will be the judge of the detention and interrogation policies that the Bush administration initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. President Bush and Vice President Cheney repeated their views as they left office. The prolonged detention of hundreds of foreigners at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on some number of them were necessary for national defense and legal under the law.
President Obama has also made his views clear. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he said in his inaugural address. Those ideals – “the rule of law and the rights of man” – “still light the world,” Obama said, “and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Obama gave substance to his view the very next day by signing executive orders to limit the “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding that were used against some detainees. The president also ordered the closing of the Guantanamo prison camp within one year and forbade the secret prisons that the CIA had operated for some “high-value” detainees.
Despite those actions, Obama is showing no appetite for investigating what the Bush administration did to those ideals in the name of national security in the seven-plus years after 9/11. “My orientation is going to be to move forward,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” before inauguration. For a new president with a plateful of problems - recession at home, two wars abroad – Obama’s stance makes political sense. Obama has already run against Bush – and beat him soundly.
History has bigger interests, however. History needs to know all the details of how these policies were formed and how they were carried out. And the best time to begin gathering this evidence and compiling that record is now, while memories are still fresh and interest still high.
For that reason, some Democrats on Capitol Hill and some advocates and observers are calling for a joint congressional-presidential commission to examine the policies that the Bush administration pursued in its so-called war on terror. The purpose, according to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., sponsor of one such proposal, “is not payback, but to uphold the rule of law, allow us to learn from our national mistakes, and prevent them from recurring.”
Administration supporters naturally see the proposed commission as nothing but payback – a history written by victors, with predictable findings and self-serving conclusions. Their view gains credence from the calls by some critics on the left for war-crime prosecutions of those responsible for the detention and interrogation policies, up to and including Bush and Cheney.
Those trials are not going to happen. The new attorney general, Eric Holder, has made clear his opposition to criminalizing policy differences. For that very reason, trials will not tell the full story of the Bush administration’s policies.
Administration supporters also say that the record is already complete, that nothing remains but the debate. In fact, many questions remain – including a full accounting of the interrogation techniques, the secret prisons and the government’s “rendition” of detainees to other countries. In addition, a commission – its members chosen for their knowledge, judgment and independence – can draw conclusions that will carry greater weight than the partisan debates of today.
Similar inquiries have served valuable purposes. The Kerner Commission’s chilling warning about racial injustice in the late 1960 gave impetus to efforts to deal with those issues. The Church Committee’s documentation of CIA abuses in the 1970s helped close the door to some of the worst practices. A commission on the anti-terrorism policies pursued by the Bush administration – and its predecessors – could help the nation come to terms with the past and form a consensus on how best to preserve America’s cherished ideals in the future.