Congress Debates Fresh Investigation Of Interrogations

By Dan Balz and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 23, 2009

The legacy of George W. Bush continued to dog President Obama and his administration yesterday, as Congress divided over creating a panel to investigate the harsh interrogation techniques employed under Bush's authorization and the White House tried to contain the controversy over the president's decision to release Justice Department memos justifying and outlining those procedures.

Obama had hoped to put the whole matter behind him, first by banning those interrogation methods early in his presidency and then by releasing the memos last week with the provison that no CIA official who carried out interrogations should be prosecuted.

Instead, the latest decision has stirred controversy on the right and the left. Obama has drawn sharp criticism from former vice president Richard B. Cheney, former CIA directors and Republican elected officials for releasing the memos. Those critics see softness in the commander in chief. He faces equally strong reaction from the left, where there is a desire to punish Bush administration officials for their actions and to conduct a more thorough investigation of what happened.

The controversy moved to Capitol Hill yesterday as lawmakers debated the wisdom of beginning a fresh investigation of the Bush-era practices. Several top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), withheld judgment, noting that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has begun an inquiry.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, endorsed the idea and said witnesses should not be immune from prosecution.

Obama apparently thought he could avoid what is now playing out. In the weeks when he was weighing the release of the memos, a vigorous debate took place within his administration. There was, according to a senior official, considerable support among Obama's advisers for the creation of a 9/11 Commission-style investigation as an alternative to releasing the documents. But the president quashed the concept.

"His concern was that would ratchet the whole thing up," the official said. "His whole thing is: 'I banned all this. This chapter is over. What we don't need now is to become a sort of feeding frenzy where we go back and re-litigate all this.' "

Obama knew he could not stop Congress from doing whatever lawmakers decided to do, but he was reluctant to give a presidential imprimatur to a national commission that would keep the controversy alive for months or years. He had his own agenda and wanted to move on. Putting out the memos seemed to be the cleanest way to accomplish his twin goals of making a break with the previous administration and avoiding a lengthy and partisan debate over his policy vs. Bush's.

That was where things stood when the administration released the information last week. In the subsequent four days, officials did damage control. Obama went to CIA headquarters Monday to defend his decision and to try to boost morale at the agency. Meanwhile, there was a backlash against the administration's seeming posture that no one should be prosecuted for what happened under Bush.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel contributed to the perception that this was the administration's position. Speaking on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, he said that neither the CIA officials who carried out the harsh interrogations nor the Justice Department officials who authorized them should be prosecuted. "It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back [in] any sense of anger and retribution," he said.

That was contrary to what the administration signaled when the memos were released. At that time, it seemed clear that the authors of the legal justification could face legal jeopardy, depending on a further review by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

When Obama was pressed on this and other questions Tuesday, he said he was not prepared to rule out prosecutions of some of those responsible for setting the policy. What seemed to be off the table Monday was suddenly back on it.

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