WASHINGTON – U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is poised to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate alleged CIA abuses committed during the interrogation of terrorism suspects, current and former U.S. government officials said.
A senior Justice Department official said Holder envisions a probe that would be “narrow” in scope, focusing on “whether people went beyond the techniques that were authorized” in Bush administration memos that liberally interpreted anti-torture laws.
Current and former CIA and Justice Department officials who have knowledge of the interrogation files contend that criminal convictions will be difficult to obtain because the quality of evidence is poor and the legal underpinnings have never been tested.
Some cases have not been disclosed, including an instance in which a CIA operative brought a gun into the interrogation booth.
Other potentially criminal abuses have come to light, including the water-boarding of prisoners in excess of Justice Department guidelines, and the deaths of detainees in CIA custody in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003.
Opening a criminal probe is something Holder “has come reluctantly to consider,” the Justice Department official said, stressing that he has not reached a final decision. “But as attorney general, he has the obligation to follow the law,” the official said.
Others familiar with Holder’s thinking say that such an investigation seems all but certain, and that a prosecutor probably will be selected from a short list Holder asked subordinates to assemble.
Such a prosecutor would examine cases that are generally at least five years old, and probably some that were reviewed previously by career prosecutors who concluded that they could not be pursued.
“I don’t blame them for wanting to look into it,” said a former high-ranking Justice Department official. “But if they appoint a special prosecutor, it would ultimately be unsuccessful, and it would go on forever and cause enormous collateral damage on the way to getting that unsuccessful result.”
Bracing for the worst, a small number of CIA officials have put off plans to retire or leave the agency so that they can maintain their access to classified files and be in better position to defend against a Justice Department probe.
The investigation probably also would target private contractors who worked for the CIA during the interrogations.