Road Map: Democrats Wary of Obama’s Torture Stance

Posted April 20, 2009 at 6:41pm

Even though President Barack Obama is inclined to turn the other cheek on Bush-era torture memos, Congressional Democrats are saying, “Not so fast.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Monday that she has penned a letter to Obama asking him and White House officials to hold their tongues on whether to prosecute the lawyers in President George W. Bush’s Justice Department who authored legal opinions that sanctioned harsh and painful interrogation tactics for suspected terrorists.

Feinstein has been conducting her own review of how the U.S. government got into the torture business after 9/11, and she said that, “until people understand the whole picture,— making comments about who would or would not be held accountable is “not advisable.—

Feinstein estimated that her panel’s inquiry will be completed within six to eight months and said a report on the interrogation methods used against two terrorism detainees has been completed and is now up for the committee’s review.

Feinstein was reacting to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said Sunday that Obama does not support bringing criminal charges against the memos’ authors — Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel lawyers Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury — or the CIA agents who used those memos as permission to employ tactics long regarded as torture against “high-value— terrorism suspects. Additionally, Obama said in releasing the torture memos last week that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.—

Feinstein said she also has spoken with Attorney General Eric Holder and “urged him to reserve judgment until the Senate Committee on Intelligence is able to complete its review.—

Several other Members have expressed their discontent as well. House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has already called for Bybee — now a federal judge — to be impeached, and he plans to meet with Holder as well to press for a special counsel investigation, his spokesman said.

“The president’s intentions are honorable, but don’t go far enough,— Nadler said in a statement. “All history teaches that simply shining a light on criminal acts without holding the responsible people accountable will not prevent repetition of those acts.—

Nadler has announced plans to hold hearings on the issue.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also indicated that he thinks the Obama administration may have jumped the gun by trying to rise above the partisan fray that is sure to accompany any public review of the Bush administration’s actions. But he said he understands why Obama is pushing a message that he would rather look forward instead of backward.

“I take the Obama position as being a gentle statement that we’ve got the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. … And that’s the first priority,— Whitehouse said.

But as a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary panels, Whitehouse said the president’s position appears “premature,— given that there are three reviews under way: the Intelligence Committee’s investigation, an internal CIA review and a nearly completed report by Justice’s own Office of Professional Responsibility on whether the memos’ authors violated professional ethical standards.

Whitehouse said he expects the OPR report to be a “pretty devastating— indictment of Bybee and Bradbury, and that the report could be the “tipping point— that spurs a formal Justice Department criminal review.

Still, Obama is walking a fine line as he tries to bolster his image as a president who shuns partisan witch hunts, even as he fed his own party’s demand for red meat by releasing the memos in the first place. In fact, not many people on either side of the aisle appear satisfied with the way Obama is straddling that fence.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued that the Obama administration did so largely to score political points at the expense of national security. “It seems that this administration looks for every opportunity they can to seek to embarrass the previous administration. I think this is one time they really overstepped their bounds,— Chambliss said Monday.

While Democrats publicly downplay any split with Obama, they are privately stung that the president has provided Republicans with new ammunition to accuse them of wanting to exact revenge for perceived Bush administration transgressions.

The GOP “may take some rhetorical support from what the president has said,— Whitehouse noted. “But when push comes to shove, if the evidence [of illegal activity] is there, that’s what will drive the story.—

And one senior Senate Democratic aide said Congress will likely take an expansive view of the president’s comments.

“I think most Members of Congress would agree that we should look forward,— the aide said. “But to go forward, you have to make sure that what happened before was legal. Congress is well-suited to have that kind of inquiry.—

Indeed, besides reviews by Feinstein and Nadler, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is continuing to push a bipartisan “Commission of Inquiry— into how the policy came into being in the first place — the prevailing theory, of course, is that the road leads straight into the office of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I don’t think the president’s comments deter in any way Sen. Leahy’s continued pursuit of what happened here,— a Leahy aide said.

Despite its protestations about valuing the future over the past, the White House has avoided questions about whether it would support such a commission.

In fact, Caroline Fredrickson, the American Civil Liberties Union’s top lobbyist, said she sees a silver lining to the administration position.

“In some ways, it almost frees [Congress] up to say, We’re not going to mess up any prosecutions now,’— she said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.