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Congress Debates Fresh Investigation Of Interrogations
White House officials said the president's words were not a change in policy, but the headlines and the television commentary said otherwise. Now, Obama finds himself in the middle of a storm that may or may not pass quickly.
Bush administration veterans, led by Cheney, are poised to renew a high-volume debate over the efficacy of the interrogation methods and, more broadly, the approach to terrorism that Obama's predecessor took after Sept. 11, 2001. Cheney called this week for the release of more memos that he said would demonstrate how effective the tactics were. And in an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity, he made it clear that he is ready to wage a battle over who is right.
"The threat is there. It's very real, and it's continuing," Cheney said. "And what the Obama people are doing, in effect, is saying, 'Well, we don't need those tough policies that we had.' "
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was pressed in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday to respond to Cheney's contention that the administration is suppressing evidence that the techniques worked and that Bush officials tried to correct problems as they arose. "It won't surprise you that I don't consider him a particularly reliable source of information," Clinton responded.
Obama has triggered a debate over what happens next. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for a special prosecutor. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared to reject that course, saying Justice Department lawyers are looking into the question of legal action against those responsible for authorizing the interrogation methods and are capable of reaching a conclusion.
Gibbs also emphasized that it will be up to the Justice Department, not the White House, to decide how to proceed, and he invoked an analogy.
"If you spray-paint the back of this plane, if you tear up one of the seats, even though it's Air Force One, the president doesn't make a determination as to who broke the law," Gibbs said. "That's a legal official."
The possibility of a commission remained unclear. The Senate's leading advocate for the idea, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said Tuesday that he welcomed Obama's comments opening the way for an inquiry but was still looking to gather support.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the chief backers of the commission proposal, sent Obama a letter yesterday pressing him to consider prosecuting not only the lawyers who provided legal justification but also some of the people who carried out the procedures.
In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said prosecuting Bush administration officials for their legal opinions would have a "deeply chilling effect" on any administration receiving legal advice. And they said a commission would "focus on the mistakes of the past" instead of "looking forward to solutions."
White House officials have expressed confidence that a congressionally backed investigation will not come to pass. But they have been drawn into a debate they did not foresee. The president has a full plate, domestically and internationally. He had hoped that, in winning the election and moving quickly to change his predecessor's policies, he could close the books on Bush's presidency.
Instead, he has found in his first months how difficult that is. Hopes for an immediate change in tone have withered. Republican opposition to his economic policies remains nearly unanimous. With this latest controversy, he is learning that neither the opponents nor the defenders of Bush's presidency are ready to move on.
Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.