WASHINGTON (AFP) — President Barack Obama Tuesday opened the door to prosecuting Bush-era officials who authorized terror interrogations seen by critics as torture, wading into a deep legal and political thicket.
Obama distinguished between intelligence operatives acting under White House legal authority who used coercive tactics on Al-Qaeda suspects and Bush administration lawyers who devised the legal cover needed for their actions.
"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," Obama said.
"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 perimeters of various laws.
"I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there," Obama told reporters after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office.
Obama's position appeared to differ from that of his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, expressed on ABC News show "This Week" on Sunday, when he said that the president did not want to pursue those who "devised policy."
But during a contentious White House briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Obama had remade previous administration policy.
"Whether or not anybody was confused or misspoke, I would take what the president said ... I'm informed he got more votes than either of the two of us," Gibbs said.
The spokesman added that it was entirely proper for the Justice Department and not the White House to make a determination.
"The Justice Department would review whether or not a law was broken," Gibbs said, in a comment that appeared to suggest a judgement that US law was infringed would not necessarily lead to prosecution.
Gibbs also declined to discuss the question of whether former senior administration officials, even up to ex-president George W. Bush, should also be liable to prosecution, if comparatively junior legal aides were also found at fault.
"You're well ahead of any possible determination or even any possible investigation," he told reporters pressing him on the question.
Obama outlawed enhanced interrogation practices within days of taking office in January, saying they did not make America safer and did not necessarily provide failsafe intelligence.
On Monday, Obama heaped praise on the CIA, telling staff not to be discouraged by his release last week of stunning details on the interrogations denounced as torture by critics, which sparked a political firestorm.
The memos detailed harsh techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and even a proposal to use insects to frighten a detainee, endorsed by the previous administration.
"As a general view, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards," Obama said Tuesday, adding he was worried about any investigation in Congress that would become too politicized.
"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 another political advantage, but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way."
Therefore, the president said that he preferred that any investigations take place outside the often highly partisan committee hearings process on Capitol Hill into an episode that he said has cost America its "moral bearings."
Republicans reacted angrily to Obama's comments.
"What happened to him talking about not looking backward, about looking forward?" said Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada.
"I think it's a huge mistake," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
"If we start criminalizing legal advice given to a past president, advice you may disagree with, that's on the margins of legal thought in your opinion, you've really harmed the presidency," he told reporters.
Ex-vice president Dick Cheney told Fox News on Monday he had asked the CIA to declassify memos that showed the successes that resulted from the interrogations.
But human rights groups were furious that Obama simultaneously ruled out prosecutions of CIA operatives who carried out interrogations viewed as torture, by reasoning that they were acting on orders to defend their country.
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