Will Ghosts of Bush Administration Derail Obama's Agenda?

Investigations into Bush-era terrorist interrogations could harm Obama's plans.

ByScott Mayerowitz
July 12, 2009, 12:44 PM

July 12, 2009— -- As if he didn't already have enough on his plate, President Obama will now likely have to deal with something he hoped to avoid: revisiting Bush-era scandals.

Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to push forward with a criminal investigation into the Bush administration's interrogation practices on suspected terrorists, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos confirmed today. This comes despite the White House's desire to see the issue disappear.

"We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," Obama told Stephanopoulos on "This Week" in January.

But Obama's attorney general appears to be moving forward on his own. Holder is reported to be considering whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the interrogation practices that some have called torture.

Washington is split between those who say the nation needs to move on and others who say that our leaders must be held accountable for their actions.

Complicating matters is a report today that the Central Intelligence Agency, for eight years, withheld information from Congress on a secret counterterrorism program on the direct orders of then Vice President Dick Cheney.

Having the Bush era back in the spotlight could form even more partisan bickering in Washington and possibly derail the president's ambitious agenda in health care and energy reform as well as plans to stimulate the economy.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in the election, said on "Meet the Press" this morning that such an investigation would not be in the country's best interests.

"For us to continue this and harm our image throughout the world. … I agree with the president of the United States. It's time to move forward," McCain said.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, also a Republican, added on "Fox News Sunday": "I hope that the attorney general listens to the president who says we need to look forward, not backward."

But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said she understands the hard choice Holder has before him.

"I don't know whether he will choose to investigate, but that's certainly his independent option," Feinstein said on "Fox News Sunday."

Newsweek, which first reported on the investigation's likelihood, said Holder understood the political implications of such a probe and the hassle it would create for the Obama administration. Holder was troubled by what he learned about the CIA's treatment of terrorism suspects after Sept. 11, 2001.

"I hope that whatever decision I make would not have a negative impact on the president's agenda," Holder told Newsweek. "But this can't be a part of my decision."

The attorney general has said that those who acted within the government's legal guidance will not be prosecuted. But he has left open the possibility of pursuing those who went beyond that guidance.

Department of Justice Spokesman Matt Miller told ABC News that now senior Bush administration officials are under consideration for investigation at this time.

"As the attorney general has stated on numerous occasions, the Justice Department will follow the facts and the law with respect to any matter," Miller said. "We have made no decisions on investigations or prosecutions, including whether to appoint a prosecutor to conduct further inquiry. As the attorney general has made clear, it would be unfair to prosecute any official who operated in good faith based on legal guidance from the justice department."

Any investigation into interrogation practices might also be matched with an investigation of Cheney's actions.

The New York Times reported today that Cheney ordered the CIA not to tell Congress about the counterterrorism program. Obama's CIA director Leon E. Panetta learned of the program on June 23 and immediately ended it. He then briefed House and Senate intelligence committees the next day in private sessions, The Times reported.

On ABC's "This Week," Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., argued the Senate Intelligence Committee should "absolutely" investigate the matter.

"To have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate it could be illegal," Durbin said.

"The executive branch of government cannot create programs like these programs and keep Congress in the dark," he added. "There is a requirement for disclosure, it has to be done in an appropriate way so it doesn't jeopardize our national security."

However, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., argued against any investigation just yet.

"I don't think we should be jumping to any conclusions," Kyl said. "The Republican leader on the intelligence committee in the House described this certainly not as some kind of massive program but something that was on again off again … never got off the ground."

Kyl said he understands the concept that national security concerns may preclude the executive branch from sharing some information with Congress.

"The president and the vice president are the two people who have responsibility ultimately for the national security of the country," he said.

Cornyn, a Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday": "To trot out the vice president and say he's the one that's at fault … this is unfortunately sounds like a new theme where they still want to blame the Bush-Cheney administration."

But Democrat Fienstein said on the same show that this should never happen again.

"They could have watched the program, they could have asked for regular reports on the program, they could have made judgments about the program as it went along," she said. "That was not the case because we were kept in the dark."

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