WASHINGTON — No wasting time digging up the past? So much for that.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday that his attorney general would determine whether anyone from the Bush administration broke the law by crafting a legal rationale for drastic, demeaning interrogations of terror suspects. On the surface, it was a pragmatic call: Let the Justice Department lawyers check it out.
Trouble is, the White House had been sending the opposite signal for days. Obama tried last week to close a dark chapter, not open a messy one, as he made public the memos detailing the brutal interrogation methods . Nothing, he said, is gained by "spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
In a flash, the story was not Obama's decision, but whether he had changed his position. The White House said no, but struggled to explain why not.
So what happened?
Outside forces, some muddled communication within a tight-ship White House, and a president determined to try to get the debate back on his terms.
Obama also gave Congress a piece of advice: If you are going to order a full looking-back investigation of Bush-era interrogation policies, give it to independent people who are "above reproach and have credibility." He contrasted that to Congress' own hearing process "that can sometimes break down."
The decision itself to release the memos weighed on Obama; he calls it one of the tougher ones he's had to make, which is saying something considering he's widened the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, ordered deadly force to halt the hijacking of a U.S. sea captain and grappled with a crippling recession.
Yet the tricky part is still going on.
He is out to find just the right balance — hold those accountable who may have broken the law but do nothing to encourage the kind of partisan, perfect-for-television investigatory hearings on Capitol Hill that could steal time and attention away from his agenda.
The turn of events also underscored that even a powerful president doesn't have control of all the events.
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He released the memos last Thursday en route to Latin America and the Caribbean and quickly followed up with a reassuring stop at CIA headquarters Monday soon after he got back. Both went smoothly. But in between, criticism from the left and right built, and the White House message got a little murky.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said over the weekend the administration did not support prosecutions for "those who devised policy." Aides later said he was referring to CIA superiors who ordered the interrogations, not the Justice Department officials who wrote the legal memos allowing them.
Video: More than ‘a few bad apples’ Then came Obama's comments Tuesday when a reporter asked him if he backed prosecution for those who devised the interrogation policy. He had already shot down the idea of prosecuting any of the CIA agents who carried out the interrogations on grounds they were following the law at the time.
"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 I don't want to prejudge that," Obama said.
It immediately seemed like a huge, surprising opening.
Which is exactly what some of the liberal and human rights groups that helped get Obama elected want.
MoveOn.org, an influential advocacy group with millions of grass-roots advocates, has launched a petition drive to persuade Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate what it calls "the architects of Bush's torture program." When asked if Obama was giving into pressure from the left, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I doubt the president has been on MoveOn.org in the last 24 hours. So, no."
It was also unclear exactly whom Obama was talking about in opening the door to potential prosecutions. Just the lawyers who formulated those "legal decisions" to allow simulated drowning, physical violence and other grim tactics? Or the people who actually ordered those policies to be put in place?
"You know, I obviously — without parsing that, I don't know the answer to that," Gibbs said.
Critics say the methods outlined in the Justice memos are torture. Obama said they revealed "us losing our moral bearings."
What was clear is that Obama wants any investigation to be methodical and productive, not politically distracting or vindictive. He cannot control whether or how Congress investigates the Bush era, but Obama can influence those decisions, said Norman Ornstein, a government scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"Let's face it," Ornstein said. "If the president sends a firm signal, most in Congress, including the leadership, will tend to follow it. You're not going to see congressional committee chairs trying to go after this in a vicious way if the president says, 'This is how we're going to go.'"
And after getting assailed by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans for, in their view, undermining national security and tipping off the enemy, Obama mounted a blunt defense to reporters, even though he wasn't directly asked about that point.
"I wake up every day thinking about how to keep the American people safe, and I go to bed every night worrying about keeping the American people safe," Obama said, sounding remarkably like the man who was in office during the controversial interrogations, George W. Bush.
"I've got a lot of other things on my plate," Obama said. "I've got a big banking crisis, and I've got unemployment numbers that are very high, and we've got an auto industry that needs work. ... But the thing that I consider my most profound obligation is keeping the American people safe."
Critics of Obama's decisions on the matter said they knew more investigations were coming.
As Michael Hayden, the CIA chief under Bush, put it over the weekend: "Oh, God no, it's not the end of it."
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