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.
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.
Earlier yesterday, Boehner criticized Pelosi and leading congressional Democrats who are pushing for the panel by noting that they had been briefed on interrogation tactics as far back as September 2002.
"All of this information was downloaded to congressional leaders of both parties with no objections being raised," Boehner told reporters. "Not a word was raised at the time, not one word."
But Pelosi said leaders were never briefed about the actual use of waterboarding, saying top lawmakers were told only about the existence of legal opinions supporting its rationale.
"We were not -- I repeat -- were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used. What they did tell us is that they had . . . the Office of Legal Counsel opinions [and] that they could be used, but not that they would," she said.
In late 2002, Pelosi was the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, so she was part of the "Gang of Four" briefings given to the top members of the intelligence panels in the House and Senate. Pelosi continued receiving highly classified briefings when she became Democratic leader in 2003, as it is customary to brief the top Democrat and Republican from the House and Senate.
The select few lawmakers who were briefed about the handling of detainees were then forbidden from discussing with their colleagues what they had learned, she said.
"They don't come in to consult," Pelosi said of administration officials. "They come in to notify. They come in to notify. And you can't -- you can't change what they're doing unless you can act as a committee or as a class. You can't change what they're doing."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.