The partisan firefight over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s incendiary allegation that the CIA lied to Congress about its use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” — torture — is a blessing. It turns the compelling case for a public inquiry into the Bush administration’s policies toward terrorism detainees into an urgent necessity.

Americans must finally own up to what was done, at whose order, with whose acquiescence, and why. The U.S. government must at last hold accountable the architects of this calamity — not only the underlings like Lynndie England and Charles Graner and Janet Karpinski, those frontline military personnel who paid the price for bit roles in the scandal after the first stomach-turning photos of abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison came to light.

This trio again comes to mind because even as the Pelosi furor escalated beyond all reason — not to mention the known facts — President Obama rescinded not one but two promises. He reneged on a commitment to release more photographs of the horror at Abu Ghraib and at detention sites in Afghanistan. The first pictorial chronicle of depravity at Abu Ghraib led to the congressional inquiries that eventually led us to understand that the U.S. had implemented torture as official policy. And that policy was not some half-baked idea cooked up by kids in the desert but developed by lawyers and top administration officials in Washington.

The presidential candidate who harnessed the power of the Internet to gain the White House seems oddly oblivious to the fact that, however much he may want to keep the photos private to spare U.S. troops the possibility of deadly backlash, more images already circulate. The unauthorized distribution of the graphic photos is just as likely to provoke the same reaction. Yet a controlled release by the Obama government, abiding by a court decision and what this president has pledged would be the “rule of law” on his watch, holds the possibility that the president — and the country — would gain respect abroad for breaking cleanly with the culture of cover-up.

Obama meanwhile has decided to reinstitute the discredited military commissions for trying suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison — a system he once decried as anathema to civilized society. Even in doing so, he noted that as a senator, he’d voted in favor of military commissions in 2006.

Which loops us back to the Pelosi controversy and to the larger question of Democratic complicity in the moral outrages of the Bush era.

We do not know who is lying about CIA briefings on torture, and who is telling what best approximates the truth. These briefings were at best cryptic, members of Congress weren’t allowed to take notes, and the whole enterprise was classified. If Pelosi had emerged from such a session and blown the whistle on torture, the very same Republicans who now attack her for keeping silent would have howled mercilessly and quite possibly pronounced her guilty of treason.

Yet Democratic acquiescence in abhorrent Bush policies is a worthy subject for a chapter in any final report of a truth commission. Too often in the aftermath of 9/11, Democrats decided where to stand depending on where George W. Bush sat. When he sat atop the public opinion polls, they cowered at the possibility he would call them soft on terror and threaten their re-elections.

This syndrome was at the root of the 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq. A majority of Senate Democrats, led by Tom Daschle — known last year as anti-war candidate Obama’s inside-Washington promoter — voted to let Bush charge recklessly into Iraq. Pelosi and most House Democrats voted no. Still there were many later opportunities for forceful action, if not against torture and abuse, then in determined opposition to warrantless wiretapping, the Guantanamo penal colony, the detainee deaths while in U.S. custody — the list goes on and on.

That the list is so lengthy, and that we still lack basic facts about so much of what transpired, is reason enough to establish a nonpartisan panel, along the lines of the 9/11 commission, to at last expose the truth. Those who designed and implemented the policies that have brought such discredit to the nation must be called to account.

Those who looked the other way must now face their own responsibility. For the worst of human history inevitably unfolds when good people avert their eyes.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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