President Obama's suggestion Tuesday that his administration's Department of Justice could prosecute Bush-era officials for formulating harsh interrogation techniques against detainees prompted both praise and criticism in Washington.
The president was the most direct he has ever been in suggesting such prosecution was possible. But despite the shifting language, which the White House denied was the case, Obama made it clear that he believed those CIA officers who were told by the Bush administration that these harsh interrogations were legal should not be charged.
"For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it's appropriate for them to be prosecuted," he said following a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah.
"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," he said. "I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there."
The Senate Armed Services Committee released a 232-page report late Tuesday concluding that these interrogation techniques were approved at a very high level in the Bush administration.
"In my judgment, the report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration's interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse -- such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan -- to low ranking soldiers," said Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "The record established by the Committee's investigation shows that senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques. Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses."
The report focused on interrogation methods that took place in the military's secret prisons, but not the CIA.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair confirmed a story reported in the New York Times that he informed President Obama in a private memo that the harsh interrogation tactics did indeed yield valuable information from terror suspects.
In a statement released Tuesday night, Blair says that he while he did recommend to the president that the administration release these memos, he also made clear that the CIA should not be punished for carrying out legal orders.
"We do not need these techniques to keep America safe," he continues in his statement. "The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means."
The White House also suggested, for the first time, that any public investigation of interrogation policy should be like the 9/11 Commission.
"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," Obama added.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the president would see the 9/11 Commission as a model of how an investigation into the torture memo matter should be carried out.
Obama is concerned that such an investigation "could become overly politicized," Gibbs said. On the 9/11 Commission, however, the members -- regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans "put their party identification away in order to answer some very serious questions," he said.
When the memos outlining legal justifications for harsh interrogation techniques were first released last week, the White House took the stance that no charges would be brought against those involved.
On "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the president will not seek prosecution.
"He believes that people in good faith were operating with the guidance they were provided," Emanuel said. "Yeah, but those who devised the policy, he believes that they were, should not be prosecuted either, and that's not the place that we go."
Gibbs echoed that message Monday.
"The president does believe and the attorney general said quite clearly that those that believed in good faith that these techniques had been declared legal by the Department of Justice, should not be prosecuted," Gibbs said. "The president also believes that rather than looking backward and fighting this backward, that it's important to move our country forward."
What Obama said today contradicted those statements. The White House would not explain the change, saying that the president never contradicted himself and only repeated what he's been saying.
"No, I think the president, as I said, you can date back to the -- I think was asked, at least I recall it being asked in the transition -- and discussed the rule of law, that nobody in the country is above that rule of law," Gibbs said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, who had been pressuring the administration to leave the door open for prosecutions, welcomed the news.
"I was very pleased to hear that. I think that is the right thing," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein said on CNN that she was not aware of the interrogation techniques.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., announced soon after Obama's remarks that the committee would hold hearings on the torture memos.
"Critical questions remain concerning how these memos came into existence and were approved, which our committee is uniquely situated to consider," Conyers said in a statement.
"The president's comments today on possible approaches to a fuller accounting of these matters are exactly right -- further comprehensive review of the Bush administration anti-terror policies will be most valuable and successful if done in a truly apolitical and bipartisan manner," he said.
Earlier this month, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., even raised the possibility of impeaching one of the authors of these memos, Jay Bybee, currently a federal judge.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said Bybee would never have been confirmed had the Senate been aware of the content of the memos, adding that Bybee should resign.
There is an ongoing internal investigation into Bybee and two other authors of the torture memos, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury, within the DOJ.
Republicans, on the other hand, were less than enthusiastic.
"The president's contradiction is a bit surprising and we're sort of interested to know what is the policy or the position of the administration, because now it seems to me somewhat confusing," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"I wish there was as much focus from this administration on policies that will keep us safe here in the United States," he said. "To the extent that the president wants to alter the fundamental policies that have kept us safe for the last eight years since 9/11 is a matter of some concern."
Another person who has taken the lead in criticizing the administration's move to release the memos is Dick Cheney.
Obama's remarks came amid a media campaign by the former vice president, who helped formulate the Bush administration's policies. In an interview with Fox News, he harshly criticized the Obama administration for releasing the memos.
"One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is they put out the legal memos ... but they didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. And there are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified," he said.
Cheney also said he has asked the CIA to declassify those interrogation 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."
A National Archives spokesperson confirmed that Cheney had indeed submitted a formal request, which was forwarded this morning to the appropriate agency.
The White House had some strong words for Cheney, who has also assailed Obama's foreign policy and was against Obama shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas.
"We've had at least a two-year policy disagreement with the vice president of the United States of America. That policy disagreement is whether or not you can uphold the values in which this country was founded at the same time that you protect the citizens that live in that country. The president of the United States and this administration believes that you can. The vice president has come to, in our opinion, a different conclusion," Gibbs said.
While Obama's remarks have stirred up both sides, it remains to be seen what steps the DOJ will take. The bar for prosecution is quite high. A prosecutor would have to show that the lawyers knew the activity was torture and were finding legal ways around it, and that they were giving legal advice to make illegal actions legal.
For now, the Obama team insists it wants to move forward, but little may come until past issues are resolved.