Obama's agenda at risk in push for CIA inquiry

Reports of a secret CIA program renew Democrats' calls to investigate Bush policy – which could divert attention from Obama's healthcare and energy plans.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Obama is under pressure to look into Bush-era antiterror policies. At left, he delivered an address on national security May 21 at the National Archives in Washington.

The growing clamor in Washington for investigations into controversial Bush-era antiterror policies is putting President Obama in a difficult political position.

Senior Democrats in Congress seem eager for an inquiry into whether the CIA hid information from Congress at the direction of former Vice President Dick Cheney. The Democratic party's liberal base could revolt if Obama tries to block a look at the past.

But such an investigation could also damage the prospects for Obama’s healthcare and energy plans, polarizing lawmakers along party lines and making it more difficult to attract GOP votes for his agenda.

Mr. Cheney and other former Bush officials would fight back, too, making any inquiry more complicated and diverting national attention at a crucial time for the administration.

“If you’re Obama, no, this would not be a good idea,” says Ian Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The renewed interest in investigating Bush policies was triggered by secret meetings June 24 between CIA director Leon Panetta and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. At those meetings, Mr. Panetta revealed that he had discovered a classified CIA counterterror program that had been concealed from Congress.

Furor over secret CIA program

Some lawmakers responded with a storm of protest. On Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said the failure to notify Congress was “a big problem, because the law is very clear.”

The action “could be illegal,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, the party’s second-ranking senator, on Sunday.

On Monday, it seemed the House Intelligence Committee might launch an investigation. Panel chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D) of Texas sent a letter to ranking minority member, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, asking whether the GOP committee members deemed such a probe necessary.

So far, White House officials have been circumspect in their comments. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the president “believes that Congress should always be briefed fully and in a timely manner in accordance with the law.”

The CIA chief is currently looking into how this situation came about, he added.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the program in question was a secret CIA effort to capture or kill Al Qaeda leaders. It may not have been reported to Congress in part because it never got off the ground, according to news reports.

“The problem is, they [the CIA] have no assets” inside terrorist organizations, says Professor Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania.

There may be more to the program, Lustick says. For instance, it may have involved attempts to draw in suspected terrorists by setting up fake efforts to attack the US.

Torture inquiry also possible

Aside from the CIA program, Bush administration interrogation practices remain a subject of possible investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder is reported to favor naming a prosecutor to look into whether these practices crossed the line into torture.

The White House has responded carefully to these reports, too. “Our efforts are better focused looking forward than looking back,” said Mr. Gibbs on Monday.

For the Obama administration, an investigation into either the CIA program or Bush interrogation policy could be harmful in two ways, says Stephen Hess, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. It could interfere with White House efforts to push its domestic agenda, especially at this critical period, he says.

Opening the Pandora’s box of the past could also subject the administration to criticism that it is eager, in a time of apparent safety, to target people who may have simply done what they thought was necessary in a time of greater apparent danger, he adds.

“These are the kinds of investigations that, once you’ve started them, you can’t turn them off,” says Hess.

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