There seems little doubt that various Bush-Cheney appointees did things they could go to prison for in the name of the “war on terror,” from torture to illegal surveillance of Americans citizens to misinforming the Congress. And it seems equally obvious that it would be both improper and politically unwise for Barack Obama to call for the prosecution of members of the previous administration; those judgments are properly made by prosecutors, not by the President.
In the case of torture, any exercise of prosecutorial discretion in favor of torturers might run afoul of our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. That makes it unsurprising that Attorney General Holder, in the face of the President’s expressed preference for looking forward rather than back, is reported to be on the verge of naming a torture prosecutor.
A truth commission might be able to provide accountability without causing a partisan firestorm, but we’ve never done such a thing here and of course the Republicans would be reluctant to admit that their conduct requires the same sort of treatment as that of the Communists in Eastern Europe and the military dictatorships of Latin America.
On the other hand, if prosecutions were to start, it would be perfectly appropriate for the President to ask the Congress to establish a truth commission with the power to provide immunity from prosecution in return for truthful testimony. And the Republicans facing charges might help persuade the Republicans not facing charges that such a compromise would be better, from their perspective, than the alternative.
I have no independent basis for thinking that anyone in the current administration, including the President, has such an outcome in mind. but if that were the plan it would be consistent with everything we know about the Obama operating style.