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Obama reopens torture-charge possibility

Steven Thomma And Marisa Taylor McClatchy

WASHINGTON – Under pressure, President Barack Obama reversed statements from his own top White House aides and opened the door Tuesday to prosecuting Bush administration officials who approved harsh interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists.

Obama repeated his stand that CIA officers should be immune from criminal charges for their work interrogating suspects using techniques such as waterboarding, which critics call torture, so long as the interrogators followed guidelines written by senior Bush administration legal officials.

He said, however, that he would leave it to Attorney General Eric Holder to decide whether Bush administration officials should face criminal charges for approving the use of such practices.

“For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office.

“With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that 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. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there.”

Obama also said that he’s open to an independent or bipartisan investigation of the interrogations.

His statement that his administration might prosecute members of the Bush administration caught Washington by surprise, directly contradicting comments made two days before by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and raising questions about why Obama abruptly changed course.

On Sunday, Emanuel told ABC News that Obama would extend his immunity from prosecution beyond CIA officers to policymakers. He said the president believed “those who devised policy … should not be prosecuted either. … It’s not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution.”

Yet by Monday afternoon, as Obama visited the CIA to assure officers there that they wouldn’t be prosecuted, he was already facing questions from inside his own administration about how far he could or should go, as well as loud complaints from friends and allies in Congress and beyond.

Inside, some administration officials raised concerns that Obama had overstepped proper legal boundaries by unilaterally declaring that the Justice Department would take no action.

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