WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama came under strong criticism from Republicans on Wednesday for leaving the door open to the prosecution of former Bush officials who authorized severe interrogations by the CIA.
Obama’s decision to release classified memos last Thursday that detailed aggressive techniques used 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 September 11 attacks in 2001.
Those on the right say Obama, a Democrat who took over as president from Republican George W. Bush on January 20, seems to be breaking a pledge to look forward, not review the past.
Karl Rove, who was a top aide to 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.
“If the Obama administration insists on criminalizing policy disagreements, how can they place any limits on who they prosecute?” Rove told Reuters.
“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,” Rove 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.”
Critics of the harsh interrogations, including the waterboarding technique that makes suspects feel as if they are drowning, say they amounted to torture.
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 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,” Gibbs said.
Three key U.S. senators, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham and 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, all of whom had opposed the harsh interrogation tactics.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, renewed his call for the creation of a special commission to investigate the severe interrogation methods.
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.
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, backed Leahy’s call for “a truth commission” but said it should be very selective in granting immunity.
A commission would remove “all doubt that how we protect the American people is in a values-based way,” she told a media roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.
A liberal group, Moveon.org, 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.”
Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, 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 started, “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 John O'Callaghan