Pressure builds on torture issue

White House opposes outside investigation

By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats and activist groups turned up the pressure on the Obama administration yesterday to pursue investigations or prosecutions of Bush administration officials who authorized brutal interrogations of terrorist suspects.

But the White House declared yesterday that it opposes an independent panel to investigate the interrogations, two days after President Obama opened the door to a panel similar to the bipartisan commission that looked into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A coalition of liberal advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and, delivered petitions with 250,000 signatures demanding that Attorney General Eric Holder appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate allegations that US intelligence agents used torture while questioning detainees.

Obama and Holder have both said there will not be prosecutions of CIA officers or military personnel who aggressively questioned detainees with methods approved by the Bush Justice Department. But Obama said this week that it's Holder's call whether to prosecute the lawyers and others who wrote memos authorizing the harsh tactics.

Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer, says he will follow the evidence. "I will not permit the criminalization of policy differences," he testified yesterday before a House committee. "But it is my duty to enforce the law."

The petitions landed on Holder's desk just two days after the Democrat-led Senate Armed Services Committee released a report detailing how interrogators began training in the harsh techniques - including severe sleep deprivation and simulated drownings known as waterboarding - long before the Department of Justice gave legal permission to use them. The report also states that the Bush White House ignored career intelligence officials who argued that the controversial methods were illegal and ineffective.

Angered by that report and by the once secret Bush legal memos Obama released last week, Democrats on Capitol Hill pushed past the president's more moderate position to declare they will "get to the bottom" of how former President George W. Bush, his Cabinet, and his legal advisers decided to use what critics call torture.

At least two powerful Senate committees, led by Democrats, have already completed major portions of their investigations, and others, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, want an independent "truth commission" to publicly air the facts.

"Out of all this, we will learn more," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is in the middle of its own investigation. He said it is possible to also name a "national accountability commission" composed of prominent citizens with impeccable reputations.

But several top Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, are pushing back. A day after they sent a letter to Obama arguing that any investigation criminalizes political differences on national security, McCain and several colleagues applied more pressure on the White House through a round of interviews on TV news programs.

"Look, in banana republics they prosecute people for actions they didn't agree with under previous administrations. To go back on a witch hunt that could last for a year or so, frankly, is going to be bad for the country, bad for future presidents," McCain said on CBS, noting that the nation has "a whole array of problems associated with detainees" still in American custody.

The White House made clear yesterday that it does not support an independent panel, an idea top Senate Democrats also oppose. "We're all best suited looking forward," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Gibbs said that the idea of an independent panel was debated about two weeks ago, as Obama administration officials decided whether to release the legal memos, but that the "concept didn't seem altogether that workable in this case."

Led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, some Republicans assert that the release of the legal memos themselves has damaged national security. They accuse the Obama administration of withholding other memos that they say would prove that the harsh interrogations produced crucial information on terrorist plots. The White House argues that much of what was contained in the memos it declassified had already been made public.

After congressional leaders met privately with Obama yesterday at the White House, House Republican leader John Boehner told reporters that the release of the memos was "the latest example of the administration's disarray when it comes to national security."

Holder told the House Appropriations Committee that he is willing to release as much information as possible about the interrogations and has no intention "to play hide and seek" with the facts.

"It is not our intention to try to advance a political agenda or to try to hide things from the American people," he said.

Holder must soon choose from a range of options, among them appointing a special investigator, launching a Justice Department criminal probe, or deciding that pursuing the matter is too divisive to serve the national interest. Any decision he makes, however, carries big political risks for the president, according to lawmakers and political analysts.

If Holder follows suit with Democrats and digs deeper, it will further anger congressional Republicans, some of whom Obama could need to pass his legislative agenda. If he decides against a new probe, or chooses not to pursue evidence of wrongdoing, Holder could alienate Obama's liberal supporters.

Despite last week's release of the Bush legal memos to pacify critics on the left and personally paying his respects in a visit to the CIA on Monday, Obama has not avoided a highly partisan political firestorm on the issue, and it shows no sign of abating.

"The White House's clear preference for turning the page is no longer sustainable," said Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank. "The more we learn, the more troubling it gets."

Although the Democratic majority has taken matters into its own hands, there are other key probes underway, including a Justice Department ethics investigation of the lawyers who wrote the declassified memos, and an internal CIA probe led by former Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.

Whitehouse said any investigation should include the roles independent contractors - retired military and intelligence personnel who work for companies hired by the government.

"It raises intensely significant questions," he said, including whether private contractors were less likely to question the use of rough interrogations.

But Gude warned Democrats who want to see Bush administration officials in the docks for committing acts of torture.

A criminal trial "would be incredibly damaging to our democracy, and the next time we have a Republican administration they will be much more likely to do the same thing," he said.

The decision Attorney General Eric Holder must make carries big political risks for President Obama, lawmakers said.