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Obama Rejects Truth Panel

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news briefing that she has "always been for a truth commission."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news briefing that she has "always been for a truth commission." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 24, 2009

President Obama rebuffed calls for a commission to investigate alleged abuses under the Bush administration in fighting terrorism, telling congressional leaders at a White House meeting yesterday that he wants to look forward instead of litigating the past.

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In a lengthy exchange with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Obama appeared to back away from a statement earlier this week that suggested he could support an independent commission to examine possible abuses, according to several attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss the private meeting freely. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, also seeking to clarify the president's position, told reporters that "the president determined the concept didn't seem altogether workable in this case" because of the intense partisan atmosphere built around the issue.

"The last few days might be evidence of why something like this might just become a political back and forth," Gibbs said.

The push for a "truth commission," which grew from the efforts of a few human rights groups, gained fresh momentum with last week's release of the memos from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that provided the basis for the enhanced interrogation techniques, including the practice of simulated drowning known as waterboarding. Obama has said he is opposed to holding CIA interrogators legally accountable, but in a statement last week, he left open the possibility of legal jeopardy for those who formulated the policy.

On Tuesday, Obama explicitly raised the prospect of legal consequences for Bush administration officials who authorized the techniques applied to "high value" terrorism suspects, and said if Congress is intent on investigating the tactics, an independent commission might provide a less partisan forum than a congressional panel.

Some key lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), pounced on his remarks to push for a commission with subpoena power and the ability to grant immunity to some witnesses.

As Republicans rejected the idea, Democrats were deeply divided.

Yesterday in a briefing before the White House meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) instead said that the Senate intelligence committee would conduct its own review, a process that could stretch through December.

At almost the same time at another briefing across the Capitol, Pelosi told reporters that she has "always been for a truth commission," a position she reiterated at the White House meeting, one participant in the session said.

But a White House official present at the meeting said Obama told lawmakers that a commission would "open the door to a protracted, backward-looking discussion."

Boehner also urged Obama to release further classified memos detailing the questionable interrogation techniques. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney has argued that the memos will make clear that aggressive tactics yielded valuable intelligence information that prevented further terrorist attacks.

Obama responded that Cheney had done "a good job at telling his side of the story," according to Democrats and Republicans in the room. "Obama said the memos weren't as clear-cut," one attendee said.


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