U.S. senator seeks Bush-era 'truth commission'

(Updates with Obama comment, paragraphs 8-10)

WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - A U.S. "truth commission" should investigate Bush administration policies including the promotion of war in Iraq, detainee treatment and wiretapping without a warrant, an influential senator proposed on Monday.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged a commission as a way to heal what he called sharp political divides under former President George W. Bush and to prevent future abuses.

He compared it to other truth commissions, such as one in South Africa that investigated the apartheid era.

"We need to come to a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past," Leahy said in a speech at Georgetown University.

"Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened," the Vermont senator said. "And we do that to make sure it never happens again."

Some Republicans and intelligence officials have resisted any suggestion of broad inquiries into accusations against the Bush administration, saying it would be a distraction or weaken morale in the fight against terrorism.

"If every administration started to re-examine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it. This is not Latin America," the Judiciary committee's top-ranking Republican, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told reporters last month.

President Barack Obama, who suggested shortly before he took office in January that he did not favor prosecuting Bush administration officials over their counterterrorism policies, said on Monday his administration would seek to uphold "our traditions of rule of law and due process."

"Nobody's above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing ... people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen," Obama told a news conference, his first since taking office.

"I will take a look at Senator Leahy's proposal ... but my general orientation is to say let's get it right moving forward," he said.

Bush spokesman Rob Saliterman said only, "We're not going to respond to every call for more investigations."

Leahy said he had not begun to promote the truth commission idea with the Obama administration or with the Democratic- controlled Congress. But he suggested it could be formed by both Congress and the White House, and said the panel must have credibility across the political spectrum.

Issues to investigate would include the Justice Department's firings of several U.S. attorneys, which Leahy said may have been motivated by a White House aim to influence elections, policies on the treatment of terrorism suspects and other areas "where (congressional) committees were lied to."

That included the war in Iraq, he said. "There were lies told to the American people all the way through."

Bush has acknowledged that intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was wrong, but said he never lied to the public about the war.

Leahy said he wanted the Defense Department investigated for filming Iraq-war protesters, which he said came "shockingly close" to the FBI's Vietnam War-era Cointelpro operation to investigate domestic war protesters. "We fought a revolution in this country so we could protest the actions of our government," he said. (Editing by Peter Cooney)