Today, the Senate judiciary committee will consider whether to create a "truth commission" to investigate alleged abuses and crimes committed on the watch of George W. Bush. Here's hoping the committee gives up the idea.
Yes, this is dissatisfying. No one should be above the law, especially those in government. But the political fallout of a congressional investigation would exceed its utility.
When asked whether he supported a truth commission, President Barack Obama said: "I am more interested in looking forward than in looking backward." Democrats in Congress should point in the same direction.
It's not that there isn't stuff worth looking into. We learned this week that the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed 92 tapes of prisoner interrogations. The agency didn't want people to see those prisoners being waterboarded, a form of torture in the minds of everyone except those in the previous administration who said it was just an "enhanced interrogation technique."
(How can you tell when something is true and something is a lie? One way, George Orwell taught us, is to look at the words being used. People speaking the truth tend to use Anglo-Saxon words such as "water" and "board." People seeking to deceive lean heavily on the French/Latin side of the language: "enhanced," "interrogation" and "techniques." The former administration is guilty by vocabulary.)
We also learned that a raft of Justice Department opinions on the legality of the anti-terrorism measures made early in the Bush presidency had been rescinded in later years, because they were clearly flawed. One legal opinion said the government could suspend free speech, because the country was in a state of war.
So what is to be done?
Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, wants to "develop and authorize a person [or]a group of people universally recognized as fair-minded, without any axe to grind" to investigate "not for purposes of constructing criminal indictments, but to assemble the facts."
That's not nearly enough for a coalition of human-rights groups; it has called on Attorney-General Eric Holder in a petition "to appoint a non-partisan independent special counsel to immediately commence a prosecutorial investigation into the most serious alleged crimes" of Mr. Bush and his cronies. (Too much Latinate English there, too.)
The problem with hiring lawyers to investigate the government is that they can go rogue. Kenneth Starr was appointed to look into Bill Clinton's real-estate dealings and ended up submitting a report on his adultery.
Also, it becomes retaliatory. Because the Republicans sicced Mr. Starr on the Clinton administration, the Democrats forced the appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the Valerie Plame affair. (If you've forgotten it, let it stay forgotten.)
If the Democrats appoint a special counsel to investigate the Bush years, count on the Republicans to one day appoint a special counsel to investigate the Obama years. The only way to reverse this corrosive political culture is for one side to declare a ceasefire. Appointing a special counsel will simply make the war go on.
And a truth commission could be even worse, dragging on for years and conferring immunity on people who should have been charged.
If the Obama administration - which, by the way, has reserved the right to use some of the previous administration's measures - uncovers evidence of criminal wrongdoing by its predecessors, it should bring in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Otherwise, it should bury any dead horses and move on.
We need to remember what the months after 9/11 were like. Everyone, including the most senior officials, believed another major attack was imminent. Anthrax was in the mail system. The American people demanded that their government go after the terrorists who had so savagely attacked them.
Things got authorized that should not have been authorized. Lawyers came up with opinions that were fig leaves. And a certain paranoia, already percolating through the White House, began to spread.
As fear of another attack subsided, people began having second thoughts. When the United States invaded Iraq on what turned out to be faulty or false pretenses, suspicion turned to anger. Mr. Bush ultimately lost all credibility in the eyes of the American people, the highest price a politician can pay. Unless someone knowingly committed a felony on government service, that's probably enough.
Besides, we really don't know why there hasn't been another attack.