The United States does not torture, Barack Obama has proclaimed on numerous occasions since he arrived at the White House and almost immediately signed an executive order banning controversial interrogation techniques. The lingering, perhaps trickier, question is what to do about prisoner abuse that may have occurred in the seven years before Mr Obama was elected president.
That question was partially answered when Eric Holder, Mr Obama’s attorney general, launched an investigation into the interrogation of detainees held by the Central Intelligence Agency during the administration of George Bush. Called a “preliminary review”, the limited probe gives a second look at specific interrogations that may have overstepped even the more lenient legal guidance of Bush-administration lawyers. The review will determine if a full investigation is warranted.
Despite the narrowness of its stated scope, the investigation has drawn passionate criticism from Republicans, notably Dick Cheney, the former vice president, who says the probe is outrageous and will make the country less safe.
“It’s clearly a political move,” Mr Cheney told Fox News last Sunday, adding that he believes the review will expand beyond the individual interrogators involved. “There’s no other rationale for why they’re doing this.”
Mr Cheney said he stands by interrogations conducted while he was in office – even those that went beyond what the legal interpretations at that time allowed. “Enhanced interrogation techniques were absolutely essential in saving thousands of American lives and preventing further attacks against the United States,” he said. “It was good policy.”
These arguments have reignited debate over torture and caused some liberals, such as Jarold Nadler, a Democratic congressman from New York, to call for an expansion of the new probe to include Mr Cheney himself.
“Former vice president Cheney is essentially saying that any acts performed by members of the CIA – no matter how illegal or abhorrent – are OK, and must never be the subject of a criminal investigation,” Mr Nadler said in a statement issued this week. “This is outrageous, and violates just about every traditional American concept of liberty and justice.”
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, dismissed Mr Cheney’s claim that the review will devastate the morale of the intelligence community: “I’m not entirely sure that Dick Cheney’s predictions on foreign policy have borne a whole lot of fruit over the last eight years in a way that has been either positive or, to the best of my recollection, very correct,” he said on Monday.
The Democratic National Committee later in the week released an anti-Cheney television ad, which shows the former vice president making statements that turned out to be incorrect, such as, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”. Weapons of mass destruction were not found in Iraq. Mr Cheney’s final statement in the commercial was taken from the Sunday interview in which he supported “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a stance the ad says is also wrong.
The US public is hardly of one mind on the issue of torture. An Gallup poll in April found 51 per cent of Americans wanted an investigation into the harsh interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists during the Bush administration, while 42 per cent opposed such a probe.
Mr Holder announced his preliminary review in late August, on the same day the government, under a long-delayed court order, declassified parts of a 2004 CIA report with fresh details of harsh interrogations, including a mock execution, suggestions that a detainee’s mother would be sexually assaulted in front of him and intimidation with a power drill and a handgun. It is unclear if the probe covers these incidents or is limited to cases that have not been made public.
Mr Holder added the new cases to the mandate of John Durham, a widely respected career prosecutor who was appointed by Michael Mukasey, a Bush-era attorney general, to look into another matter involving the CIA. Mr Holder said his decision to initiate the limited investigation was based on information in the unredacted version of the 2004 CIA report, the recommendations of a separate justice department review and “other relevant information”. He described the review as “the only responsible course of action for me to take”.
Charles Stimson, a justice department official under Mr Bush and senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said the investigation makes sense if new information has come to light that was not available to or uncovered by the lawyers who previously reviewed the cases.
“Typically prosecutors don’t look back over other career prosecutors’ work, but it does happen,” he said. “But it’s an awkward and potentially dangerous precedent to go back and review decisions by a career prosecutor on a sensitive and controversial issue. If there’s no additional information, then it is a raw political act.”
Mr Obama has so far avoided directly answering questions about prosecuting Bush-era officials – particularly lawyers who backed questionable techniques, such as waterboarding, with problematic legal opinions. “We should be looking forward and not backwards,” he has said on numerous occasions.
Reports have suggested Mr Holder was acting on his own in launching the probe that appears to buck the wishes of his boss, though critics, such as Mr Cheney, charge that the administration is faking any disagreement between the White House and the justice department to help the president distance himself from the contentious issue.
Ken Gude, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank, thinks Mr Holder’s difficult decision to launch the investigation was “the opposite of politics”.
“The politically expedient choice would have been to follow what the president wants,” he said. “Certainly there are a number of Democrats who are uneasy with investigating the CIA. The political choice would have been to do nothing.”