WASHINGTON — Barack Obama is discovering that there are some things a president cannot control — like whether Bush administration officials who authorized the use of forceful interrogation tactics in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks will face a public reckoning and potential legal sanctions.
Obama bowed to that reality today, acknowledging that he cannot rein in Justice Department prosecutors if they determine that the law was broken. And he’s apparently concluded that supporting an independent investigation like that conducted by the 9/11 Commission might be the best way to stave off a polarizing show trial on Capitol Hill.
“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,” Obama said.
Neither the Justice Department, nor Congress, needs a president’s permission to investigate. Indeed, several congressional committees already have been probing how and why torture techniques became part of U.S. interrogation practices, and the Justice Department office of legal ethics is preparing its own report on Bush-era lawyers involved in the decision.
The Senate Armed Services Committee released the latest review on Tuesday night — a declassified account of the investigation the panel conducted last year. It details how, after high-level officials in the Bush administration OK'd the harsh techniques for terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, the practices spread to Afghanistan and then Iraq, despite protests by some military officials.
“Senior administration officials … attempted to shift the blame for abuse — such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan — to low ranking soldiers,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. “The truth is, early on, it was senior civilian leaders who set the tone.”
The report concludes that it was “authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials (that) resulted in abuse,” Levin said.
The Senate report confirms the content of the Bush Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinions that were released last week, and chronicles how physical and psychological techniques, developed by the Chinese Communists in the Korean War, have been applied in recent years to U.S. soldiers as part of their survival training — and then how they were adopted, after Sept. 11., 2001, by the United States for use in the war on terror.
These “Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape” techniques include “stripping trainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, subjecting them to face and body slaps, depriving them of sleep, throwing them up against a wall, confining them in a small box, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights and exposing them to extreme temperatures.”
Until recently, Navy SERE trainees also were subjected to waterboarding, in which captives are made to feel they are drowning.
After 9/11, the report says, military interrogators and behavioral scientists at Guantanamo Bay felt pressure from superiors to come up with tougher interrogation regimes. Over the objections of some military lawyers, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of a list of harsh SERE techniques for Guantanamo Bay in December 2002.
The report details how Rumsfeld’s authorization served as justification for applying these methods in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, where they were used, and eventually exposed, at the prison in Abu Ghraib.
From the beginning, in October 2002, military psychologists warned that the SERE techniques brought “a large number of potential negative side effects.” At first, such actions “will increase the level of resistance in a detainee,” one officer wrote. Later, “it usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain.”
“Bottom line: the likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low,” the psychologist concluded.
Another unnamed officer pointed out the “need to really stress the difference between what instructors do at SERE school (done to INCREASE RESISTANCE capability in students) versus what is taught at interrogator school (done to gather information.)"
The officer pointed out that, “What is done by SERE instructors is by definition ineffective interrogator conduct.” He added: “Simply stated, SERE school does not train you on how to interrogate, and things you 'learn' there by osmosis about interrogations are probably wrong.”
But former Vice President Dick Cheney argued in a television interview on Fox News last weekend that the Obama administration selectively released the Bush administration memos, and withheld those that “showed the success of the effort.” Liberal critics, and some Democratic senators, are also pressuring Obama for full disclosure and, if warranted, prosecution and punishment of those involved.
On Tuesday Levin urged Attorney General Eric Holder to select “a distinguished individual or individuals,” such as retired federal judges, to look at “the volumes of evidence” uncovered by his committee and others “and to recommend what steps, if any, should be taken to establish accountability of high-level officials — including lawyers” whose legal reasoning justified the harsh techniques.
After a scheduled meeting at the White House with King Abdullah of Jordan on Tuesday morning, Obama took a few questions from the press. He renewed his usual call for the U.S. to look “forward and not backwards,” and to not consume political energy in a divisive review of Bush-era interrogation techniques.
But Obama did say that the Justice Department would continue to examine whether any Bush administration policymakers had violated the law.
“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 parameters of various laws, and I don’t want to prejudge that.”
In doing so, the president appeared to be undercutting the statement made Sunday by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that Bush administration policymakers “should not be prosecuted.”
Obama then expressed his hope that if Congress does decide to investigate past practices, it would do so by handing the job to “independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility” to conduct any probe “in a bipartisan fashion outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break … entirely along party lines.”
“It is very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage,” Obama said.
Later, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which held hearings and released a best-selling report on the Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S., is “a model” of what Obama was talking about.
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