Obama triggers firestorm in CIA interrogation case

* Obama decision on interrogation memos spurs anger

* Fears raised on "show trials" for Bush officials

* Attorney general repeats "no one is above the law" (Adds petition, Senate report, paragraphs 19-20)

WASHINGTON, April 22 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama came under strong criticism on Wednesday for leaving the door open to the prosecution of former Bush administration officials who authorized severe CIA interrogation procedures.

Obama's decision to release classified memos last Thursday that detailed aggressive techniques on terrorism suspects, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and forced nudity, has triggered a political firestorm in Washington.

Politicians on the left are eager to launch investigations into the Bush-era policies that were part of the effort to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks, while those on the right said Obama seems to be breaking a pledge to look forward, not review the past.

Karl Rove, who was a top aide to former President George W. Bush, accused Obama of seeking to conduct "show trials" a day after the president left open the possibility of prosecuting officials who provided legal analysis of interrogation procedures.

Rove told Reuters: "If the Obama administration insists on criminalizing policy disagreements, how can they place any limits on who they prosecute?"

"Everyone in the interrogation process would have to be treated the same," he said, including the CIA agents, the physicians who monitored interrogation sessions, and the lawyers who researched and wrote the memos.

The chain could reach "to the leadership of the intelligence community to the legislators in both parties and the Bush administration officials who were briefed on these memos and agreed to them," he said.

"It is now clear that the Obama White House didn't think before it tried to appease the hard left of the Democratic Party," Rove said.


Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department will follow the law wherever it leads in probing U.S. officials behind CIA interrogation policies.

"No one is above the law," he said, reiterating that the department had no intention of prosecuting CIA interrogators who acted "in good faith" to follow official legal guidance.

The controversy threatened to become a distraction for Obama as he seeks to keep Americans' attention on his efforts to rebuild the U.S. economy.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama believes the memos and their release should be a moment for reflection, not a moment for retribution.

Any decision to prosecute anyone, he said, would be made by the Justice Department, not the president or the White House. "I think that the lawyers that are involved are plenty capable of determining whether any law has been broken," he said.

Three key U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham and former Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman, issued a joint letter to Obama strongly urging him not to prosecute government officials who provided legal advice related to detainee interrogations.

"Pursuing such prosecutions would, we believe, have serious negative effects on the candor with which officials in any administration provide their best advice," wrote the senators, who all had opposed the harsh interrogation tactics.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, renewed his call for creation of a special commission to investigate the severe interrogations methods he and other critics have said amounted to torture.

Leahy said if the votes cannot be mustered among lawmakers to create such a bipartisan commission, he would hold an investigative hearing and would expect other congressional committees to do so as well.

"I want someone to tell us exactly what happened so that it won't happen again," Leahy told reporters.

A liberal group,, asked readers on its website to sign a petition calling on the Obama administration to appoint a special prosecutor "to investigate and prosecute the architects of the Bush-era torture program."

Former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice approved the CIA's interrogation program, including waterboarding, in 2002 and Vice President Dick Cheney affirmed White House support a year later, a Senate Intelligence Committee report said on Wednesday.

A former Bush White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said if a probe is opened up, "Barack Obama will regret this as one of the worst moments of his presidency, because it will set off a multi-year, extraordinarily divisive, all-consuming Washington scandal/controversy and everyone will end up looking bad."

Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, Thomas Ferraro, Ross Colvin and Tabassum Zakaria; editing by Philip Barbara and Eric Beech