WASHINGTON — Besieged during the Bush administration for bending to the White House's will, the Justice Department is again accused of playing politics with cases — this time in investigating whether CIA interrogators illegally abused terror suspects.
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The new charges were led Sunday by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who called the preliminary probe ordered last week by Attorney General Eric Holder an "outrageous political act that will do great damage, long term."
"I just think it's an outrageous precedent to set, to have this kind of, I think, intensely partisan, politicized look back at the prior administration," Cheney said in an interview aired on "Fox News Sunday."
Cheney lashed out at Holder for what he called a reversal of an earlier pledge by President Barack Obama not to pursue criminal charges against CIA officers who interrogated terror suspects to get information about threats against the United States. Among the interrogation methods allowed under the Bush administration was waterboarding, which critics call a form of torture that has since been banned.
Cheney said the harsh tactics were used to save Americans' lives in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"Now they get a little heat from the left wing of the Democratic Party, and they're reversing course on that," Cheney said. Since leaving office in January, Cheney has become the Democrats' top critic on national security policies.
It was an instance of rhetorical justice for the former vice president, who helped lead a White House that was widely lambasted for improper political meddling at the nation's top law enforcement agency. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — the one-time private attorney to George W. Bush — resigned in 2007 amid charges that prosecutorial and personnel decisions at the Justice Department were driven by politics.
Holder is a career prosecutor with political ties: He served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration and led the Obama campaign's selection process for a vice president. Before taking the helm at Justice this year, he said he wanted to restore the department's image and pride as a fiercely independent agency.
Justice spokesman Matt Miller declined Sunday to respond to Cheney's comments, pointing instead to earlier remarks Holder made in announcing the investigation.
‘Only responsible course of action’
At the heart of the new CIA probe is whether interrogators overstepped even the wide latitude allowed in questioning terror suspects under guidelines approved by the Bush-era Justice Department and, ultimately, the Bush White House.
Holder said he will not focus on interrogators who followed the approved guidelines. Even so, he said, "given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."
Cheney, in the interview aired Sunday, said he was comfortable defending cases where interrogators went beyond what they were specifically authorized to do. He said they were "directly responsible for the fact that for eight years, we had no further mass casualty attacks against the United States."
The CIA report found they included cases of interrogators threatening a detainee with a handgun and an electric drill. Neither weapon was directly used on a detainee, Cheney said.
"I'm very proud of what we did in terms of defending the nation for the last eight years successfully," he said.
Paul F. Rothstein, a legal ethics professor at Georgetown Law School, said the investigation highlights Holder's independence from the White House since Obama said he did not want one. Having said that, Rothstein added, investigating the actions of a past presidential administration sets an uneasy legal precedent.
"There is a significant segment of the population that believes that something illegal may have happened, and I think Eric Holder is sort of duty-bound to look into it," Rothstein said. "A solid person will be reasonably independent of the Obama administration — although not entirely. When you get this far in your career, you do know who the bosses are."
Whether Holder is acting independently or political may, in fact, be decided along partisan lines. Republicans also said the investigation could have a chilling effect on interrogators who are seeking information to protect the United States.
"I really question whether the attorney general is doing what is right," Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said Sunday. "What they're doing is crippling the CIA where they're going to be unwilling to really take the risks that have to be taken during really crucial times."
Democrats who have criticized the Bush interrogation policies for years said the probe, at a minimum, indicates that Holder is not merely an arm of the White House.
"I think there is a little bit of a tension between the White House itself and the lawyers in the Justice Department as they see the law and as what their obligation is," said Sen. John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential nominee. "That's appropriate, because it shows that we have an attorney general who is not pursuing a political agenda, but who is doing what he believes the law requires him to do."
Not all Democrats, however, are happy with the investigation. Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said it might get in the way of a review that her own committee is already undertaking.
Otherwise calling herself "horrified" at the CIA report's conclusions, Feinstein said. "We are not going to be deterred from completing this study and candidly, I wish that the attorney general had waited."
Hatch and Kerry spoke on ABC's "This Week," and Feinstein spoke on CBS's "Face the Nation."
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