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Obama open to some interrogation prosecution

The president is leaving the door open to possible prosecution of Bush administration officials who devised harsh terrorism-era interrogation tactics.
President Obama is leaving the door open to possible prosecution of Bush administration officials for harsh interrogation tactics.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

President Barack Obama left the door open Tuesday to prosecuting Bush administration officials who devised the legal authority for gruesome terrorism-suspect interrogations, saying the United States lost "our moral bearings" with use of the tactics.

The question of whether to bring charges against those who devised justification for the methods "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.

The president discussed the issue of terrorism-era interrogation tactics with reporters as he finished an Oval Office meeting with visiting King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Obama also said he could support a congressional investigation into the Bush-era terrorist detainee program, but only under certain conditions, such as if it were done on a bipartisan basis. He said he worries about the impact that high-intensity, politicized hearings in Congress could have on the government's efforts to cope with terrorism.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said later that the independent Sept. 11 Commission, which investigated and then reported on the terror attacks of 2001, might be a model.

The president had said earlier that he didn't want to see prosecutions of the CIA agents and interrogators who took part in waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, so long as they acted within parameters spelled out by government superiors who held that such practices were legal at the time.

The vexing issue of how terrorism-era detainees held by the United States were interrogated has presented Obama with a quandary, both political and pragmatic. He harshly criticized these practices as the campaigning Democratic presidential candidate, and still feels pressure from his party's liberal wing to come down hard on it, even after the fact. But he also is being criticized by Republicans, including people as high-ranking as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who say the Bush administration doesn't get enough credit for protecting the country from a second 9/11-style attack.

Worsening Obama's dilemma: Now that he is president, he has to worry even more about the fallout of a release of government interrogation memoranda since he now oversees the entire national security establishment, including the spy apparatus.

Cheney said in a Fox News Channel interview that the U.S. government gained valuable intelligence from its aggressive interrogations. This came after conservatives roundly criticized Obama for releasing the internal Bush administration memos, saying that action was not in the U.S. national security interests.

In the interview, Cheney said, "I've now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions."

The Cheney transition office says that the former vice president made the request to the National Archives to declassify the CIA documents on March 31st - and the Archives confirmed on April 8th that they had forwarded the request to the relevant agencies. The Archives are the agency that former vice presidents contact for such matters.

Tuesday afternoon senior intelligence officials told NBC News they have not yet received any request.  Late Tuesday an intelligence official said "these things take time" and as of their latest check it had not reached the Agency.

Tuesday evening senior intelligence officials told NBC News that they have checked again, at NBC’s request, after hearing from the Cheney transition office and the request from the former vice president to the National Archives for declassification "made its way to the agency" Tuesday afternoon.

That contradicts what the Archives told the Cheney office - which is that they forwarded the request on April 8th - more than a week after it was received from the former vice president’s office.

Complicated issuesThe new administration's stance on Bush administration lawyers who actually wrote the memos approving these tactics has been somewhat murky. "There are a host of very complicated issues involved," Obama said Tuesday.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said in a television interview over the weekend that the administration does not support prosecutions for "those who devised policy." Later, White House aides said that he was referring to CIA superiors who ordered the interrogations, not the Justice Department officials who wrote the legal memos allowing them.

White House press secretary Gibbs was peppered with questions at a Tuesday briefing about whether Obama's latest statements conflicted with signals the administration had sent earlier and Emanuel's statements of Sunday.

"Instead of referring to what anybody might have said ... I think it's important to refer to what the president said," Gibbs replied. He said that Obama has said "he does not believe that people are above the rule of law." And his spokesman reiterated Obama's position that any determination on whether laws were broken "would be rightly determined by the United States Department of Justice."

If an investigation for a "further accounting" of the interrogation decision-making is launched, Gibbs said that Obama might favor the kind of independent, bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Congress set up that panel but did not run it.

"I think that the president would see a 9/11 commission, in all honesty, a model for how ... a commission might be set up," Gibbs said. He added, "I'm reminded that Congress has a pretty big say in something like that given their ability and their lawmaking power."

Obama earlier Tuesday had taken a question on this for the first time since he ordered Justice to release top-secret Bush-era memos that gave the government's first full accounting of the CIA's use of waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — and other harsh methods criticized as torture.

The previously classified memos were released Thursday, over the objections of many in the intelligence community. CIA Director Leon Panetta had pressed for heavier censorship when they were released, but the memos were put out with only light redactions.

Far from putting the matter in the past, the move has resulted in Obama being buffeted by increased pressure from both sides.

Republican lawmakers and former CIA chiefs have criticized Obama's decision, contending that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques will hamper the effectiveness of interrogators and critical U.S. relationships with foreign intelligence services.

The release also has appeared to intensify calls for further investigations of the Bush-era terrorist treatment program and for prosecutions of those responsible for any techniques that crossed the line into torture.

Obama banned all such techniques days after taking office. But members of Congress have continued to seek the release of information about the early stages of the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror under former President George W. Bush. Lawsuits have been brought, seeking the same information.

Obama said an investigation might be acceptable "outside of the typical hearing process" and with the participation of "independent participants who are above reproach." This, he said, could help ensure that any investigation would be a tool to learn, not to provide partisan advantage to one side or another.

"That would probably be a more sensible approach to take," Obama said. "I'm not saying that it should be done, I'm saying that if you've got a choice."

The president made clear that his preference would be not to revisit the era extensively.

"As a general view, I do think we should be looking forward, not back," Obama said. "I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations."

For more than a year, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has been reviewing the interrogation memos and whether the lawyers who drafted them complied with department standards. Spokesman Matt Miller said the agency had no comment "on the outcome of that review or on other possible investigations."