WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama left the door open on Tuesday to prosecuting some U.S. officials who laid the legal groundwork for harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.
Obama also said he would not necessarily oppose an effort to pursue a “further accounting” or investigation into the Bush-era interrogation program that included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, shoving people into walls and other methods.
The stance marked a shift for the Obama administration, which has emphasized it does not want to dwell on the past with lengthy probes into policies put in place by President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Controversy has erupted across the political spectrum over last week’s release by Obama of classified memos detailing the program to question al Qaeda suspects.
Human rights groups say the tactics such as waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — constituted torture and violated U.S. and international laws.
In a question-and-answer session with reporters on Tuesday, Obama reiterated his vow not to prosecute CIA interrogators who relied in good faith on legal opinions from the Bush administration condoning the harsh methods.
However, Obama did not rule out charges against those who wrote the opinions justifying the methods used on captured terrorism suspects.
“With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say 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,” Obama said after meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah.
“I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there,” Obama said.
The comment seemed at odds with the position offered on Sunday by Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who told ABC that the president did not believe the authors of the legal opinions should be prosecuted.
“Those who devised the policy, he believes that they were, should not be prosecuted either,” Emanuel said, adding that it was not a “time for retribution.”
When pressed by reporters on the contradiction, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs brushed aside questions on whether the president had had a change of heart.
“Instead of referring to what anybody might have said ... it’s important to refer to what the president said,” Gibbs said.
Human rights advocates and their supporters in the U.S. Congress want to expose and prosecute those responsible for abuses.
But Obama also has received scathing criticism from some conservatives over the release of the interrogation memos.
Among the most outspoken critics has been former Vice President Dick Cheney, who accused Obama of putting the country in danger by disclosing CIA secrets. He contends the harsh interrogations yielded valuable information that has helped keep the United States safe.
Several lawmakers in Obama’s Democratic Party are calling for public investigations into the program and contend Obama should not rule out prosecutions under anti-torture laws.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, welcomed Obama’s latest comments about a possible inquiry as a “step forward.”
Feinstein has urged Obama to withhold judgment on prosecutions, pending a closed-door review by her committee of the interrogation program.
But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell derided Obama’s approach on the interrogation issue as muddled.
“We’re sort of interested to know what is the policy or the position of the administration because now it seems to be somewhat confusing,” he told reporters.
In addition to opposing domestic prosecution of CIA interrogators, the Obama administration has said it would try to shield employees from overseas tribunals.
That view was a challenge to Spain, where a judge is mulling possible criminal action against six Bush administration officials including former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Cheney’s senior aide David Addington, and former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo.
Obama said he would not necessarily oppose a U.S. panel to investigate the interrogation program.
But he said he would prefer to see such an inquiry take place outside of the “typical hearing process” of the U.S. Congress, where the issue could become politicized.
“So if and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion ... that would be a more sensible approach to take,” he said.
Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen and Susan Cornwell; writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Will Dunham