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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Write
Thursday, April 23, 2009; 9:35 AM

When I was a young investigative reporter, I caught a number of Reagan administration officials in various misdeeds -- but some had what they deemed an iron-clad alibi.

Whatever their ethical misstep -- contractual conflicts of interest or using taxpayer money for repeated trips home -- they would often produce a letter from the agency's general counsel, officially blessing their conduct.

Never mind that it was a cozy arrangement in which their government cronies would let them do just about anything. They had an official piece of paper justifying their conduct. (Still, a number were forced to resign, and in more serious cases, some were indicted and convicted.)

This came to mind as the debate over the "torture memos" has exploded. What should be our attitude toward those who tried to justify the unjustifiable? If it's unfair to go after the CIA folks who were following the guidance from headquarters, what about those who were papering over what many consider to be a violation of international law? Can they -- should they -- be called to account without triggering a political civil war?

President Obama, who has called for looking forward, not backward, now finds himself in the situation he had hoped to avoid. By first ruling out and then opening the door to prosecuting officials from the previous administration, Obama has triggered political passions on both sides. At a time when his focus ought to be on the moribund banking system and the ailing economy, he has unleashed a furious debate about the past.

It's not that torture is an insignificant issue; far from it. The debate goes to the heart of America's character. But should prosecutions follow an election in which political power changed hands?

I'm reminded of another traumatic period in this country. Richard Nixon had subverted the Constitution and tried to steal an election before being forced from office. Gerald Ford felt the country should move on and pardoned his predecessor, triggering a firestorm that probably doomed his presidency. I thought it was an outrage at the time, a move that placed Nixon above the law. But more than three decades later, I can see that Ford spared the country a long ordeal over a trial that would have kept Watergate atop the national agenda.

That doesn't mean we should stop trying to find out how the Bush administration approved methods of torture (and what else do you call waterboarding one man 133 times?). But the Obama administration will pay a price in terms of polarization.

Politico examines Obama's dilemma:

"President Barack Obama's attempt to project legal and moral clarity on coercive CIA interrogation methods has instead done the opposite -- creating confusion and political vulnerability over an issue that has inflamed both the left and right.

"In the most recent instance, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair acknowledged in a memo to the intelligence community that Bush-era interrogation practices yielded . . . 'high-value information,' then omitted that admission from a public version of his assessment.

"That leaves a top Obama administration official appearing to validate claims by former Vice President Dick Cheney that waterboarding and other techniques the White House regards as torture were effective in preventing terrorist attacks. And the press release created the impression the administration was trying to suppress this conclusion.


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