Obama’s torture memo two-step

The administration might want to move on from the issue, but there's pressure from progressive groups and congressional Democrats for further investigation.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Under scrutiny: Progressives are calling for the investigation and prosecution of Bush-era Justice Department lawyers such as John Yoo for authorizing brutal interrogations of terror suspects. Above, Mr. Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, testified on the torture memos on Capitol Hill on June 26, 2008.

The debate over the use of harsh interrogation techniques against terror suspects during the Bush years has left the Obama administration looking, well, a little bit tortured.

On the one hand, President Obama insists “we should be looking forward and not backwards.” But in taking the unusual step of releasing last Thursday memos that provided graphic detail on how CIA interrogations were conducted, the president has invited a serious look back.

On Wednesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs maintained that the release of the memos provides “a moment of reflection, not of retribution.” And he insisted that the media had it wrong in concluding that Mr. Obama had opened the door to prosecution of those who wrote the interrogation guidelines or to a 9/11-style commission that would examine the issues raised by these interrogations.

The president, Mr. Gibbs noted, does not determine who broke the law. That’s up to law enforcement. And on the possible formation of an investigatory panel, he repeated Obama’s own assertion that he’s “not proposing this.” But in the context of not making a proposal, Gibbs repeated Obama’s stated desire that, if a panel were set up, it should be done outside the realm of politics.

Got that?

What happened between last weekend, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ruled out prosecution of the lawyers who drafted the so-called torture memos, and Tuesday, when Obama handed the question of possible prosecutions over to his friend, Attorney General Eric Holder, is anybody’s guess.

But one thing is certain: Left-wing groups, such as Moveon.org, are not letting go. They were furious that the Obama administration had appeared to shut the door on prosecutions, or what Moveon calls “accountability.” And while Obama has in the past often been willing to go against the desires of the left, it may be that in this case, he decided he could not.

“It always amazes me when presidents reverse course,” says Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and author of a new book, “The Year of Obama.”

“It either means they didn’t think it out well to begin with or it wasn’t vetted properly. He’s trying to navigate between the left and his party and the opposition party…. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to reopen this can of worms. But now he’s stuck.”

Calls for prosecution

Moveon is not standing pat on the issue. The group is releasing an ad that calls on Attorney General Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration’s interrogation tactics – and consider going as high as former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“If you torture an individual detainee, you might go to jail,” the narrator in the ad intones, over a picture of former Army reservist Lynndie England, who was convicted for abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. “But if you authorize an entire secret torture program, you get off scot-free?”

Three faces appear on the screen: John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Mr. Cheney. Mr. Yoo was the lead author of the 2002 interrogation memos, drafted during his time in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Mr. Bybee oversaw the OLC at the time, and he approved the interrogation techniques. He and Yoo are under investigation by the Justice Department’s ethics office for their work on the interrogation policy.

So despite Obama’s stated desire to leave the past behind, it’s clear that the drip, drip, drip of news about interrogation tactics will continue. On Tuesday night, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a report on harsh interrogation methods used by the military in Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and asserted they were approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Discussion also continues over the efficacy of torture. Obama’s own director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, has stated in a memo to the intelligence community that harsh interrogations during the Bush years produced “high-value information,” further muddying the Obama administration’s message on torture.

Mr. Blair’s assertion, in a memo obtained by the Associated Press, puts a top Obama administration official in agreement with Cheney, who has been vocal in defending the Bush administration’s use of tough tactics in the name of keeping the US safe after 9/11. In general, the Obama administration’s view has been that extreme tactics such as waterboarding – or simulated drowning, deemed by Holder to be illegal – do not produce reliable intelligence.

What Congress might do

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also made clear that Congress’s involvement in examining CIA interrogation policies has only just started. At a press gathering Wednesday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Speaker Pelosi said there would be hearings and supported the creation of a “truth commission.” She also held open the possibility of prosecutions.

“I myself do not believe that immunity should be granted to everyone in a blanket way,” she said.

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont said that if he cannot get the votes for a bipartisan commission on Bush-era interrogation policies, he would launch his own investigation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to ABC News. That flies in the face of Obama’s statement on Tuesday that any commission on the matter should be bipartisan.

For Obama, all the attention on the Bush-era tactics in what was called the global war on terror has deflected attention from the current, packed agenda. And the highly unusual specter of a former vice president, Cheney, lobbing critical comments from the sidelines about Obama – and defending harsh interrogations – has only muddied the waters further.

The unpopular Cheney may not be doing his own party any favors by staying in the public eye, but for his own purposes, that may not matter.

“Many vice presidents, when they leave office, have had their own presidential ambitions,” says Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency at Saint Louis University. But Cheney has no intention of running for office again, “and so he seems relatively free to say what he wants.”

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