WASHINGTON – Six months into Barack Obama’s presidency, his Democratic allies are pushing for twin investigations into Bush-era torture and anti-terrorism policies.
Two senators, including the head of the intelligence committee, suggested Sunday that the prior administration broke the law by concealing a CIA counterterrorism program from Congress.
The assertion that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the concealment came amid word that Attorney General Eric Holder is contemplating opening a criminal probe of possible CIA torture.
A move to appoint a criminal prosecutor is certain to stir partisan bickering that could prove a distraction to Obama’s efforts to push ambitious health care and energy reform.
Obama has repeatedly expressed reluctance to probing alleged Bush-era abuses. He resisted an effort by congressional Democrats to establish a “truth commission,” saying the nation should be “looking forward and not backwards.”
Regarding the 8-year-old counterterrorism program, the Bush administration’s failure to notify Congress “is a big problem, because the law is very clear,” said Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Congress should investigate the secrecy because “it could be illegal,” said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
According to Feinstein, CIA director Leon Panetta told Congress late last month that “he had just learned about the program, described it to us, indicated that he had canceled it and … did tell us that he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress.”
“We were kept in the dark. That’s something that should never, ever happen again,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein said she understands the need for strong countermeasures following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
However, “I think you weaken your case when you go outside of the law,” she added.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he agreed with Feinstein that the CIA should keep Congress informed. But Cornyn said the new assertion “looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Pelosi has accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning.
“This continued attack on the CIA and our intelligence gathering organizations is undermining the morale and capacity of those organizations to gather intelligence,” said Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Reports about the counterterrorism program, Cheney’s role in directing its existence be kept from Congress and the attorney general’s consideration of a special prosecutor came on the eve of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
Regarding the Bush administration’s conduct in the war on terror, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he’d “always preferred my idea of a commission of inquiry to look at all these issues.”
A Justice Department official told the Associated Press that Holder will decide in the next few weeks whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation practices. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on a pending matter.
In response to the report, Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said Saturday that Holder planned to “follow the facts and the law” and noted that Holder has said that “it would be unfair to prosecute any official who acted in good faith based on legal guidance from the Justice Department.”
Feinstein and Cornyn spoke on “Fox News Sunday.” Durbin appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Gregg spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Leahy spoke on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”