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Obama Lets Loose the Hounds

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 04/21/2009

In a move sure to accelerate the push for a wide-ranging investigation of Bush administration misdeeds, President Obama today said he is not opposed to some sort of "further accounting of what took place during this period," as long as it doesn't get "so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations."

He also said that, while he has ruled out prosecution of the people who followed the legal guidance provided by Department of Justice, he wasn't taking a position on what should happen to people higher up in the chain of command. "With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and -- and I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there."

Obama's constant insistence that "we should be looking forward and not backwards" -- which he repeated today -- had led to a perception that he was dead-set against further investigation of any kind. In today's comments, he said that the only thing he's really opposed to is a traditional congressional investigation.

"[I]f and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break it entirely along party lines, to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take," he said.

"I'm not suggesting that, you know, that should be done, but I'm saying, if you've got a choice, I think it's very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage, but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way."

Senator Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers, the chairmen of the two congressional judiciary committees, have both been advocating a bipartisan commission of respected figures, possibly along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to explore actions taken by the Bush administration as part of the "war on terror."

The American public overwhelmingly wants some sort of official inquiry. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, nearly two thirds of Americans support an investigation into the treatment of terror suspects during the Bush administration – although they are split on whether it should be conducted by an independent panel or by federal prosecutors.

But Leahy and Conyers were finding only lackluster support among even their Democratic peers.

Last week's release of memos justifying torture, which, in Obama's words, reflected us "losing our moral bearings," renewed the debate.

As Peter Baker and Scott Shane wrote this morning in the New York Times: "Pressure mounted on President Obama on Monday for more thorough investigation into harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration, even as he tried to reassure the Central Intelligence Agency that it would not be blamed for following legal advice."

Baker and Shane also gave a hint of what was to come: "On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program 'This Week' that 'those who devised policy' also 'should not be prosecuted.' But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale....

"The administration has also not ruled out prosecuting anyone who exceeded the legal guidelines, and officials have discussed appointing a special prosecutor. One option might be giving the job to John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor who has spent 15 months investigating the C.I.A.'s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations."

Here's the transcript of Obama's talk at the CIA yesterday. "What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy; even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it's expedient to do so. That's what makes us different," Obama said.

"So, yes, you've got a harder job. And so do I. And that's okay, because that's why we can take such extraordinary pride in being Americans. And over the long term, that is why I believe we will defeat our enemies, because we're on the better side of history.

"So don't be discouraged by what's happened in the last few weeks. Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn. But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be President of the United States, and that's why you should be proud to be members of the CIA."

But how do you learn if you don't acknowledge and fully understand your mistakes? If you can only bring yourself to call them "potential" mistakes? You can't. And apparently Obama is realizing that now.

The ultimate pragamatist -- who wanted very much to avoid unnecessary bad feelings that would distract from his agenda -- now seems to recognize that the advocates of further investigation couldn't be put off forever.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote this morning: "If it was Mr. Obama's hope to lay the torture issue to rest, he will be disappointed. Too many issues remain, most fundamentally, did the 'enhanced interrogation techniques' keep us safe — as Vice President Dick Cheney and others insist — or were they the product of simplistic minds that had seen too many episodes of '24'? Who was driving these decisions?

"Mr. Obama has resisted appointing an independent commission to explore these questions. He should reconsider. Only a full airing of the issue can tell us how we strayed so far from our fundamental values, and more important, how we can do it right the next time."

James Fallows blogged for the Atlantic: "Being true to the world's idea of America does not (in my opinion) crucially turn on prosecuting individual CIA or military interrogators. Instead it depends on full clarifying disclosure of the reasoning that led to these practices -- thus, maximum disclosure of the memos -- and full examination of the decisions that public officials made....

"[T]he historical record of what [Bush] approved, and what Dick Cheney recommended, what David Addington egged on, and what John Yoo and (sitting Federal Judge) Jay Bybee and others rationalized, should be established in unambiguous detail. For this, some American version of a 'Truth Commission' is probably the best solution. Many other countries would not bother. America -- to be true to itself -- must. This will matter in the world's eyes. More important, it will matters to us."

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