President Obama suggested today that it remained a possibility that the Justice Department might bring charges against officials of the Bush administration who devised harsh interrogation policies that some see as torture.
He also suggested that if there is any sort of investigation into these past policies and practices, he would be more inclined to support an independent commission outside the typical congressional hearing process.
Both statements represented breaks from previous White House statements on the matter.
While the Bush-era memos providing legal justifications for enhanced interrogation methods "reflected us losing our moral bearings," the president said, he also that he did not think it was "appropriate" to prosecute those CIA officers who "carried out some of these operations within the four corners of the legal opinions or guidance that had been provided by the White House."
But in clear change from language he and members of his administration have used in the past, the president said that "with respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say 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. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there."
Just yesterday, asked by a reporter as to why the administration was not seeking to "hold accountable" Bush administration lawyers who may have "twisted the law," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "the president is focused on looking forward, that’s why."
On Sunday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos that "those who devised policy, he (the president) believes that they were — should not be prosecuted either, and that’s not the place that we go." Emanuel quoted President Obama saying, "’this is not a time for retribution.’ It’s time for reflection. It’s not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution."
The president made his Tuesday remarks in the Oval Office during a joint press availability with His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein.
Mr. Obama also today said that if there is any sort of commission or investigation into the approval and use of these interrogation methods, he would prefer that it be an independent bipartisan commission and not a congressional hearing, though he was clear to state that he was not expressing an opinion on whether should there be hearings.
"If and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period," the president said, "I think for Congress to examine ways in which it can be done in a bipartisan fashion –outside of the typical hearing progress that can sometimes break down and break entirely along party lines, to accept that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility — I think that would be a more sensible approach."
The president said that he’s "not suggesting that should be done but I’m saying that 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 the other political advantage, but rather it’s being done in order to learn some lessons so that we can move forward in an effective way."
Mr. Obama also stated his "general view," that "we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we can not function effectively and it hampers ability our ability to carry out critical national security operations."
During his February 9 prime time press conference, the president was asked about a proposal by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to "set up a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration."
Mr. Obama then said that he hadn’t seen the proposal in question, but that his administration would "operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torturem" and "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing…people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen."
However, the president said, "generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the — all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America, and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information… My general orientation is to say, let’s get it right moving forward."
Today the president said he considered it his "most profound obligation" to keep "the American people safe" and said he went to the CIA yesterday to communicate to officials who work to protect the American people to say "to all those who overwhelmingly do so in a lawful, dedicated fashion, that I have their back."
– Jake Tapper, Sunlen Miller and Yunji de Nies