Administration Reluctantly Moves Toward Revisiting Bush Anti-Terror Policies

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) (William B. Plowman - AP)
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By Carrie Johnson and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 13, 2009

After trying for months to shake off the legacy of their predecessors and focus on their own priorities, Obama administration officials have begun to concede that they cannot leave the fight against terrorism unexhumed and are reluctantly moving to examine some of the most controversial and clandestine episodes.

The acknowledgment came amid fresh disclosures about CIA activity that had been hidden from Congress for seven years, the secrecy surrounding a little-understood electronic surveillance program that operated without court approval, and word that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. favors naming a criminal prosecutor to examine whether U.S. interrogators tortured terrorism suspects.

The way ahead for an administration grappling with severe economic trouble and health-care reform is all but certain to prove controversial, and perhaps difficult to control, for leaders who have foundered in their approach to national security policy.

Fears expressed by President Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, that looking back at the Bush administration would force the country into divisive arguments won new footing yesterday as conservative lawmakers challenged even small steps that Obama and his attorney general appear on the verge of taking.

"What's going to be the positive result from airing out and ventilating details of what we already knew took place and should never have? And we are committed to making sure it never happens again," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I do not excuse it. I am just saying: What's the effect on America's image in the world?

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) struck a similar chord. "This is a terrible trend. . . . This is high-risk stuff, because if we chill the ability or the willingness of our intelligence operatives and others to get information that's necessary to protect America, there could be disastrous consequences."

But civil liberties groups and House Democrats cheered the news as a culmination of months-long efforts to press Obama and his aides to pursue the issue of detainee mistreatment and other possible legal violations.

"It is time to finally confront the gross human rights abuses of the last administration," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "Initiating a criminal investigation is a crucial step towards restoring the moral authority of the United States abroad and restoring the rule of law at home."

A senior Justice Department official close to Holder stressed anew yesterday that the attorney general had reluctantly come to lean toward naming a criminal prosecutor from inside the department, after months of reading classified material including a still-secret 2004 CIA inspector general report.

The announcement to appoint a prosecutor who may look into whether CIA interrogators operated outside the boundaries set by George W. Bush's Justice Department could come in the next few weeks, perhaps in concert with the release of an ethics report involving Bush lawyers, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is continuing.

Federal law enforcement officials are obliged to investigate possible violations of anti-torture statutes and other criminal laws. That makes it difficult for the Obama administration to ignore material gleaned from watchdog reports, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other sources, former government lawyers said.

"Where there are egregious violations, you can't just brush them under the rug," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on "Meet the Press." "And so I think that the attorney general, to look for some egregious violations, which is what he is doing now, is the right thing to do."

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