Washington — President Barack Obama said Tuesday the United States lost “our moral bearings” with gruesome terror-suspect interrogations and he left the door open to prosecuting Bush administration officials who vouched for their legality.
At the same time, Obama said the question of whether to bring charges “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.” The president discussed the continuing issue of terrorism-era interrogation tactics with reporters as he finished an Oval Office meeting with visiting King Abdullah of Jordan.
Obama had said earlier that he didn’t want to see prosecutions of 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.
But the administration’s stance on Bush administration lawyers who actually wrote the memos approving these tactics has been less clear. “There are a host of very complicated issues involved,” Obama said.
The president took a question on this volatile subject for the first time since he ordered the release last week of top-secret Bush-era memos that gave the government’s first full accounting of the CIA’s use of simulated drowning and other harsh methods while questioning terror suspects.
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 Tuesday that he is worried about the impact that high-intensity, politicized hearings in Congress could have on the government’s efforts to cope with terrorism, but that he could support such an inquiry if it were done on a bipartisan basis.
Obama said such 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.”
Last week, Obama’s Justice Department published previously classified memos that described the Bush administration’s legal justification for CIA interrogation techniques that included methods criticized as torture.
On one side, Republican lawmakers and former CIA chiefs have criticized the memos’ release, contending that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques will hamper the effectiveness of interrogators and will compromise critical U.S. relationships with foreign intelligence services.
On the other side, the memos’ release has appeared to increase 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.