Obama Says Bush Officials Behind Interrogation Policy Could Be Prosecuted

By Michael A. Fletcher and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

President Obama yesterday declined to rule out legal consequences for Bush administration officials who authorized the harsh interrogation techniques applied to "high-value" terrorism suspects, saying the attorney general should determine whether they broke the law.

Obama also said that if Congress is intent on investigating the enhanced interrogation practices, an independent commission might offer a better means to do so than a congressional panel, which he indicated is more likely to split along partisan lines than to produce constructive results.

Obama last week released a statement that left open the possibility of legal jeopardy for those who formulated the interrogation policy, which critics say amounted to torture, but his comments marked the first time that he has explicitly raised the prospect. They also reversed his administration's apparent opposition to prosecuting those officials -- a stance taken Sunday by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

While Obama defended his opposition to holding CIA interrogators legally accountable, he did not extend that posture to those who created a legal foundation for the policy.

"For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it's appropriate for them to be prosecuted," Obama told reporters at the White House. "With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that."

Asked whether there had been a change in policy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "I don't think so, no. I think, again, the president has stated on any number of occasions -- and as he stated today -- in saying, I think we should be looking forward and not backward."

The president's remarks came as he was under fire from critics on both the left and the right for his handling of formerly classified Office of Legal Counsel memos in which Bush administration officials authorized the interrogation techniques, which Obama banned in the early days of his presidency.

After a lengthy internal debate, Obama released the memos late last week, saying that CIA employees who operated under their guidance should not face legal consequences. That position was opposed by some lawmakers and activists, who said someone should be held accountable for what they considered torture.

Critics on the right, including former vice president Richard B. Cheney, said that Obama was jeopardizing national security by releasing the memos. Obama officials have noted that the techniques have been discussed in news reports and even publicly by former president George W. Bush.

That divide remained evident yesterday.

"I am pleased that the president made clear that he has not ruled out investigations or prosecutions of those who authorized torture, or provided the legal justification for it. Horrible abuses were committed in the name of the American people, and we cannot look the other way or just move on," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). "The final decision will be up to the attorney general and the president, but I urge the Justice Department to take this matter very seriously."

But some Republicans questioned Obama's move. "There is a lot of gray, there's going to be an awful lot of conflict out there," said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), adding: "They would be well served not to depart abruptly from the policies that have kept us safe the last seven years."

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