President Barack Obama left the door open Tuesday to prosecuting Bush administration officials who devised the legal authority for gruesome terror-suspect interrogations, saying the United States lost “our moral bearings” with use of the tactics.
The question of whether to bring charges against those who devised justification for the methods “is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws and I don’t want to prejudge that,” Obama said. The president discussed the continuing issue of terrorism-era interrogation tactics with reporters as he finished an Oval Office meeting with visiting King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Obama also said he could support a congressional investigation into the Bush-era terrorist detainee program, but only under certain conditions, such as if it were done on a bipartisan basis. He said he worries about the impact that high-intensity, politicized hearings in Congress could have on the government’s efforts to cope with terrorism.
The president had said earlier that he didn’t want to see prosecutions of the CIA agents and interrogators who took part in waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, so long as they acted within parameters spelled out by government superiors who held that such practices were legal at the time.
But the administration’s stance on Bush administration lawyers who actually wrote the memos approving these tactics has been less clear and Obama declined to make it so. “There are a host of very complicated issues involved,” Obama said.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said in a television interview over the weekend that the administration does not support prosecutions for “those who devised policy.” Later, White House aides said that he was referring to CIA superiors who ordered the interrogations, not the Justice Department officials who wrote the legal memos allowing them.
The president took a question on the volatile subject for the first time since he ordered the Justice Department to release top-secret Bush-era memos that gave the government’s first full accounting of the CIA’s use of waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — and other harsh methods criticized as torture. The previously classified memos were released Thursday, over the objections of many in the intelligence community. CIA Director Leon Panetta had pressed for heavier censorship when they were released, but the memos were put out with only light redactions.
Far from putting the matter in the past, the move has resulted in Obama being buffeted by increased pressure from both sides.
Republican lawmakers and former CIA chiefs have criticized Obama’s decision, contending that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques will hamper the effectiveness of interrogators and critical U.S. relationships with foreign intelligence services.
The release also has appeared to intensify calls for further investigations of the Bush-era terrorist treatment program and for prosecutions of those responsible for any techniques that crossed the line into torture.
Obama banned all such techniques days after taking office. But members of Congress have continued to seek the release of information about the early stages of the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror under former President George W. Bush. Lawsuits have been brought, seeking the same information.
Obama said an investigation might be acceptable “outside of the typical hearing process” and with the participation of “independent participants who are above reproach.” This, he said, could help ensure that any investigation would be a tool to learn, not to provide partisan advantage to one side or another.
“That would probably be a more sensible approach to take,” Obama said. “I’m not saying that it should be done, I’m saying that if you’ve got a choice.”
The president made clear that his preference would be not to revisit the era extensively.
“As a general view, I do think we should be looking forward, not back,” Obama said. “I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.”