President Barack Obama has backtracked on statements he made earlier this week in which he indicated he was open to a 9/11-type commission to investigate the Bush administration’s use of torture, telling lawmakers at a meeting at the White House Thursday he now doesn’t support the idea.
Underscoring Obama’s new stance on the issue, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: “the president determined the concept didn’t seem altogether workable in this case.”
“The last few days might be evidence of why something like this might just become a political back and forth,” Gibbs said.
Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also said on Thursday he no longer supported the idea of an independent panel to investigate torture. Reid said the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been “reviewing” the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program to determine whether the techniques were effective in thwarting terrorist plots against the U.S., should continue its work. The intelligence committee’s chairman, Dianne Feinstein, said her committee expects to complete its review in six to eight months.
“I think it would be very unwise, from my perspective, to start having commissions, boards, tribunals, until we find out what the facts are,” Reid said. “And I don’t know a better way of getting the facts than through the Intelligence Committee.”
On Tuesday, in a departure from statements he has made since his Jan. 20 inauguration, Obama said he was open to the idea of a 9/11-type bipartisan commission to probe the Bush administration’s torture policies, but he said he was concerned “about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.”
But that changed over the past two days as Republicans stepped up their criticism of Obama in numerous op-ed columns in major publications and on cable news programs.
Republicans have hammered Obama since he decided to release four “torture” memos last week from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that authorized CIA interrogators to waterboard and brutally beat “high-value” detainees.
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a long-awaited report that show the seeds for the Bush administration’s policy of torture were planted in December 2001, nearly a year before the Justice Department issued its first legal opinion. The report states that the creation of the policy involved senior Bush administration officials officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
In a statement accompanying the report, committee chairman Carl Levin said he has recommended that Attorney General Eric Holder “select a distinguished individual or individuals – either inside or outside the Justice Department, such as retired federal judges – to look at the volumes of evidence relating to treatment of detainees, including evidence in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report, and to recommend what steps, if any, should be taken to establish accountability of high-level officials – including lawyers.”
At a congressional hearing Thursday, Holder told lawmakers that he would not “permit the criminalization of policy differences. However, it is my responsibility as the attorney general to enforce the law.
“If I see wrongdoing, I will pursue it to the full extent of the law,” Holder said.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is due to release a report that is said to be critical of former attorneys who created the legal framework for the White House’s torture policy.
Other Democratic lawmakers who have stepped up their calls for an independent investigation and the appointment of a special prosecutor include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Sen. Russ Feingold, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
Conyers and Leahy have both formally proposed an independent commission to probe the Bush administration’s interrogation tactics. But Conyers has also said that Holder should appoint a special prosecutor to conduct a probe simulataneously.
On Thursday, civil liberties groups presented Holder with a petition signed by 250,000 people demanding he appoint a special prosecutor to further probe the policy of torture enacted by the Bush administration.
But at the White House meeting Thursday, attended by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including Pelosi and Rep. John Boehner, Obama said he would not support any attempt to investigate the Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies.
Whether Congress decides to act in defiance of Obama’s wishes remains to be seen.