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Obama says CIA memos could yet lead to charges

Those who wrote the memos are not in the clear, he says, but any investigation must be above partisanship.

By Staff writer / April 21, 2009

Ground Zero: A US soldier stood beside a facility for high-risk detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq, in this 2004 photo. Since interrogators were found torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Congress has been determined to discover how widespread inhumane interrogation practices were and who authorized them.

Khampha Bouaphanh/AP/pool/file

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Washington

The Obama administration’s release of secret memos on “enhanced interrogation” techniques is testing the president’s commitment to keep the nation looking forward, not backward.

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Today on Capitol Hill, the debate about who – if anyone – should now face prosecution for abuses that critics say could amount to torture continued to gain momentum.

As recently as Monday, the administration's course had seemed clear.  To a cheering crowd at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va., President Obama said: “You need to know that you’ve got my full support.”

Yet today he suggested that the officials who crafted the memos could still face legal action. The comment comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill – including some who fought for years to release the Bush-era documents – rebuked the president.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California urged Mr. Obama to avoid any comment on holding people accountable for “detention and interrogation-related activities” until after the Select Committee on Intelligence, which she chairs, completes a review.

“This study is now under way, and I estimate its completion within the next six to eight months,” she wrote in a letter Monday.

In his comments today, the president gave a nod to a “further accounting” by Congress of how detainees were interrogated. Yet he remained firm on his key point that “we should be looking forward and not backwards.

“I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out national security operations, he added.

Therefore, if Congress is to investigate, Obama suggested a bipartisan review outside of the hearing process, which can "sometimes break down ... entirely along party lines."

"To the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility – that would probably be a more sensible approach to take," he said.

From the beginning, Obama appeared reluctant to release the memos at all, saying at CIA headquarters Monday that it would have been “very difficult to mount an effective legal defense” to block their release. Much of the information had already leaked into the headlines, he argued.

“I have fought to protect the integrity of classified information in the past, and I will do so in the future,” the president said in Langley. “There is nothing more important than protecting the identities of CIA officers.”

Speaking Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel went so far as to suggest that "those who devised the policy … should not be prosecuted either.”

Responding to more than 30 questions at a briefing this afternoon, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to clear up any confusion.

“I would simply say that … his general posture is to look forward, and that at the same time, nobody is above the law,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill stepped up their criticism. “It's important to remember, from 9/11 until the end of the Bush administration, not another single attack on the US homeland,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “We were obviously doing something right.”

He added: “To the extent that the president wants to alter the fundamental policies that have kept us safe for the last eight years since 9/11, it's a matter of some concern.”

In response, Democrats say that the nation is just beginning to understand what went on during this period and further investigation is essential.

It’s too early to come to conclusions, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Vice President Dick Cheney recently called to release other classified memos that show the value of "enhanced interrogation" techniques.

"I'd be interested in seeing those, too, because the Bush administration has spoken over and over and over again about the value of the information they have received from these interrogations," Senator Whitehouse added. "I've got a pretty good window on this on the intelligence committee, but I've never seen any information that connects those dots."