Muted Reaction From White House on Special Prosecutor for Alleged Torture

Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:41pm

The White House on Monday expressed guarded support for Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor to probe allegations of terrorism detainee abuse by Central Intelligence Agency agents and contractors.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued a terse statement that indicated President Barack Obama doesn’t necessarily endorse Holder’s action, but supports the attorney general’s independent authority to start such probes.

“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,— Gibbs said. “Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the Attorney General.—

Obama has said that agents and contractors who followed Justice Department guidelines — issued by the Bush administration — for harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists should not be prosecuted. But Holder appears to be focused on operatives who overstepped even those now-illegal guidelines. The investigation is expected to focus narrowly on whether the Justice Department should pursue criminal charges against CIA operatives. It is not expected to include a probe of the high-level officials in the administration of President George W. Bush who authorized or provided the legal guidance that led to harsh techniques being used in the post-9/11 war on terrorism.

Last week, nine GOP Senators wrote Holder and cautioned against appointing a special prosecutor to investigate alleged torture of suspected terrorists. The group of Senators, which included the vice chairman and four other current members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote that an investigation would “tarnish the careers, reputations, and lives of intelligence community professionals— and that any investigation would “chill future intelligence activities.—

In 2002, the Bush Justice Department provided the CIA 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, some have questioned whether the United States had essentially legalized the torture of prisoners. Even 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.

Holder is expected to name career Justice prosecutor John Durham to head the special investigation. Durham has already led the agency’s inquiry into whether the CIA in 2005 illegally destroyed tapes of harsh interrogations, including some that allegedly showed operatives waterboarding detainees.