From the beginning, President Barack Obama said he wanted to look forward rather than back. That's why he pledged early on to hold harmless CIA officers who engaged in torture deemed legal by the Bush administration, opposed prosecuting the Bush-era Justice Department lawyers who sanctioned the abuses, announced plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and began phasing out the military tribunals set up to try detainees.
Mr. Obama took all these steps in an effort to put the mistakes of the past behind him and avoid opening a Pandora's box of bitter partisan recrimination over the policies of his predecessor that might distract from the important work of fixing the economy, health care, energy policy and foreign relations.
But there are limits. The news reported this weekend by The New York Times' Scott Shane that former Vice President Dick Cheney allegedly concealed a secret anti-terrorism program from congressional leaders despite a law mandating disclosure is deeply troubling. Worse, it is just one in a series of recent disclosures suggesting that the Bush administration's secret activities in the war on terror were far more extensive than previously known. Given the new revelations, it's incumbent on Congress to launch a full-scale investigation, even if it risks derailing the president's agenda.
Among the allegations of government misconduct are the widespread eavesdropping on ordinary Americans through warrantless wiretaps begun in the aftermath of 9/11 and the refusal to investigate mass killing of thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan by local forces allied with the U.S. during the opening months of the war. A recent report by five inspectors general concluded the wiretaps violated the privacy of millions of American citizens but contributed little of value to the fight against Islamic extremists. The killing of Taliban prisoners who had surrendered to U.S.-allied forces in Afghanistan is a potential war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
Even more unsettling, last week, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress that for more than seven years his agency deliberately concealed from Congress a program to capture or kill al-Qaeda leaders and that the deception was carried out on orders from former Vice President Cheney. Although details of the operation remain classified - and Mr. Panetta said he shut it down after learning of it - it appears Mr. Cheney may have been trying to create something akin to a private death squad operating out of his office.
Taken together, these revelations are too serious to be swept under the rug, no matter how eager the country is to move ahead. Senate Democrats have rightly called for a full-scale investigation of the alleged abuses, and Attorney General Eric Holder says he is leaning toward appointing a special prosecutor to look into charges that some CIA interrogators exceeded even the extremely permissive limits on torture approved by the Bush administration. The report of Mr. Cheney's alleged involvement in concealing information about CIA activities from Congress is particularly chilling because it would violate the principle that government must be held accountable to the people's elected representatives. Congress cannot fail to act when the integrity of our system of government is at stake, and right now that imperative far outweighs our desire to focus on the issues of the day.