Congressional Republicans Denounce Holder Move to Probe Torture Allegations

Posted August 24, 2009 at 4:55pm

Updated: 6:53 p.m.Republicans on Capitol Hill reacted angrily Monday to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to authorize an independent probe of allegations that U.S. intelligence officials may have tortured suspected terrorists.Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Kit Bond (R-Mo.) called the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA operatives broke the law when they used harsh interrogation tactics a “witch hunt targeting the terror fighters who have kept us safe since 9/11.—“With a criminal investigation hanging over the agency’s head, every CIA terror fighter will be in [cover your ass] mode,— Bond continued. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, called Holder’s move a “poor and misguided decision.— In a letter to Holder, Bond and eight other GOP Senators wrote that Holder’s actions would have a “chilling effect— on the CIA’s work, and they warned that Holder’s promise of a narrowly focused investigation on low-level intelligence officials — and not into the actions of senior officials in the George W. Bush administration — would likely be undermined.“History has shown that special prosecutors, who lack the accountability of career prosecutors to Justice Department management, often take an expansive view of their investigative authority,— the Senators wrote. “Thus, despite your assurances that this investigation will be narrow and focused, there is a real risk that today’s announcement portends a long, arduous, and unpredictable process for the intelligence community. By delegating the prosecutorial function to a largely unchecked special prosecutor, you are responsible for having set a course that may diminish our intelligence efforts.— Besides Bond, the signatories include four other Republicans on the Senate Intelligence panel — Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) — as well as Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa.). The nine sent a letter to Holder last week asking him to refrain from authorizing a probe.On the House side, Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said Holder’s probe would distract the CIA from current counterterrorism efforts and called the Justice Department “intractably stuck in reverse.—“The message from the administration is completely confused, and the men and women at the CIA who we ask to protect our nation have been left in the lurch,— Hoekstra said in a statement. “Disgruntled lawyers at DOJ, having lost the debate that America’s counterterrorism efforts should be focused on prevention not prosecution, need to put an end to this bureaucratic turf battle.—Even some Democrats urged caution in the probe, noting many CIA agents were following legal guidelines provided by the Bush administration.House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) indicated that senior Bush officials should not be left out of any probe. “In nearly ever case, the men and the women at the CIA were following what they believed to be lawful guidance,— Reyes said. “Rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame, we need to carefully examine the mechanisms that allowed this guidance to be developed and implemented and enact reforms that will guard against institutional failures.—Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) was the only Member of the Senate Democratic caucus to come out against Holder’s action, echoing his Republican colleagues who said it would have a chilling effect on U.S. intelligence gathering. He had previously urged Holder to not appoint a special prosecutor.Other Democrats reacted more favorably. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who heads the Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, noted that the concurrent release Monday of a declassified version of the CIA inspector general’s 2004 report on harsh interrogation tactics “leaves no doubt that, in several instances, the line was crossed and detainees in CIA custody were subjected to torture.— The IG report helped make the case for the special prosecutor, Schakowsky said.She also said the criminal investigation should not preclude Congress from investigating the issue of treatment of prisoners as well.“It’s certainly deserving of both the investigation and possible prosecutions by the Justice Department and a more thorough investigation by the Intelligence Committees,— Schakowsky said in an interview. “This is a really serious moral and national security issue, and what’s happened now is an acknowledgment that we can’t just put these things under the rug.”“At some point, ignoring it becomes an unacceptable option, as unpleasant as it may be, as difficult as it may be, there are certain obligations that we have as a legislative branch to deal with these facts,— she said.Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) indicated he was pleased that Holder appeared to disregard President Barack Obama’s suggestion to look forward and not backward at controversies of the previous administration.“I recognize how difficult this decision has been for Attorney General Holder, and I am grateful that the Justice Department is finally being led by an independent Attorney General who is willing to begin investigating this dark chapter in our country’s history,— Leahy said in a statement.Meanwhile, the White House on Monday expressed guarded support for Holder. “The President has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back, and the President agrees with the Attorney General that those who acted in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance should not be prosecuted,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. “Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the Attorney General.—Obama has said agents and contractors that followed the Bush Justice Department guidelines for harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists should not be prosecuted, but he has left the door open to prosecution of those who may have gone beyond those instructions. In 2002, the Bush Justice Department provided the CIA and intelligence contractors with legal guidance as to what harsh methods they could use in interrogations. But since those techniques — which included waterboarding and prolonged sensory deprivation — were revealed, civil libertarians have questioned whether the United States had essentially legalized the torture of prisoners. The Bush administration later revised its legal guidelines to prohibit waterboarding.When Obama came into office this year, he specifically prohibited the use of those harsh interrogation methods.Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.