Byline: Ben Feller Associated Press
WASHINGTON u Widening an explosive debate on torture, President Barack Obama on Tuesday opened the possibility of prosecution for Bush-era lawyers who authorized brutal interrogation of terror suspects and suggested Congress might order a full investigation.
Less than a week after declaring it was time for the nation to move on rather than "laying blame for the past," Obama found himself describing what might be done next to investigate what he called the loss of "our moral bearings."
His comments all but ensured that the vexing issue of detainee interrogation during the Bush administration will live on well into the new presidentAEs term.
Obama, who severely criticized the harsh techniques during the campaign, is feeling pressure from his partyAEs liberal wing to come down hard on the subject.
At the same time, Republicans including former Vice President Dick Cheney are insisting the methods helped protect the nation and are assailing Obama for revealing Justice Department memos detailing them.
Answering a reporterAEs question Tuesday, Obama said it would be up to his attorney general to determine whether "those who formulated those legal decisions" behind the interrogation methods should be prosecuted. The methods, described in Bush-era memos Obama released last Thursday, included such grim and demeaning tactics as slamming detainees against walls and subjecting them to simulated drowning.
He said anew that CIA operatives who did the interrogating should not be charged with crimes because they thought they were following the law.
"I think there are a host of very complicated issues involved here," the president said. "As a general deal, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out national security operations."
Still, he suggested that Congress might set up a bipartisan review, outside its typical hearings, if it wants a "further accounting" of what happened during the period when the interrogation methods were authorized.
His press secretary later said the independent Sept. 11 commission, which investigated and then reported on the terror attacks of 2001, might be a model.
The harsher methods were authorized to gain information after the 2001 attacks.
The three men facing the most scrutiny are former Justice Department officials Jay Bybee, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury. Bybee is currently a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Yoo is a professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
It might be argued that the officials were simply doing their jobs, providing legal advice for the Bush administration.
However, John Strait, a law professor at Seattle University said, "I think there are a slew of potential charges."
Those could include conspiracy to commit felonies, including torture, he suggested.
Bybee also could face impeachment in Congress if lawmakers were so inclined.
A federal investigation into the memos is being conducted by the Justice DepartmentAEs Office of Professional Responsibility, which usually limits itself to examining the ethical behavior of employees but whose work in rare cases leads to criminal investigations.
The chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees said Tuesday they want to move ahead with previously proposed, independent commissions to examine George W. BushAEs national security policies. …