By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Suddenly, President Barack Obama is getting criticism from his friends and praise from his opponents — evidence of how hard it has become to move past George W. Bush’s legacy on detainee policy.
Instead of focusing exclusively on Obama’s efforts to fix the U.S. economy this week, Washington instead has been fixated on dramas involving interrogation procedures and detainees.
* Obama’s decision on Friday to continue for now using the Bush policy of setting up Guantanamo military tribunals to try terrorism suspects drew fire from his allies on the left.
“No amount of tinkering with their rules can fix this discredited system. The commissions — which President Obama has himself described as an ‘enormous failure’ — should be scrapped,” said Rob Freer, U.S. researcher at Amnesty International.
On the other hand, Obama was getting praise from people who are usually highly skeptical.
“I am pleased that President Obama has now adopted this view,” said Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee last year, who lost the election to Obama.
Ari Fleischer, who was Bush’s first press secretary, said Obama “should acknowledge his campaign criticisms were wrong.”
“With some minor changes, he really is following the same path President Bush pursued,” he said.
Obama also this week angered core supporters by changing his mind and ordering his lawyers to try to block the court-ordered release of dozens of photographs said to depict abuse of detainees, saying the pictures could “inflame anti-American opinion.”
* Obama is walking a tightrope with his liberal supporters.
They want him to close the book on the Bush years and hold accountable those responsible for harsh interrogation procedures such as waterboarding, which they call torture.
Democratic strategist Doug Schoen said Obama is following a policy of “pragmatism combined with necessity.”
“Obama understands all too well there is nothing to be gained for him and for the United States by looking backward. His problem is he can’t totally abandon the Democratic left because he needs them,” he said.
* Closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison by Obama’s deadline of next January may prove harder than expected.
Many Republicans and Democrats do not want the prisoners there transferred to facilities on U.S. soil.
* Obama’s attempts to placate the left led to a decision that started the current round of recriminations sweeping Washington.
That was his release last month of previously classified Justice Department memos that outlined the Bush administration’s legal justification for harsh interrogation measures.
It led to calls by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a “truth commission” to investigate Bush-era officials.
She was left struggling to retain her credibility when Republicans charged she knew about the techniques when they were being used in 2002 and did not complain about them then.
Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to Congress in an extraordinary news conference, denying she was briefed by the agency’s officials about waterboarding in 2002 and the interrogation of high-value suspect Abu Zubaydah.
CIA Director Leon Panetta issued a statement on Friday backing up the CIA’s version of events.
“Our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.’ Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened,” he wrote.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Eric Walsh