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Senate Democrats Praise Obama for Possible Prosecution of Bush Officials

Senate Democrats praised President Obama for leaving the door open on Tuesday to prosecutions of former Bush administration officials who crafted or implemented harsh interrogation tactics, which some have called torture

Many of those Democrats were angered when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Sunday the administration had ruled out such prosecutions.

Obama's apparent reversal also led to calls for one Bush legal advisor, Jay Bybee, to resign his judgeship on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Bybee authored some of the legal opinions that supported the use of tactics like waterboarding, or mock drowning.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, accused not only Bybee but also the Bush White House of lying to his panel during Bybee's confirmation hearings.

"If the White House and Mr. Bybee had told the truth at the time of his nomination, he never would have been confirmed," Leahy said. "So actually, the honorable and decent thing for him to do now would be for him to resign. If he's an honorable and decent man, he will."

Leahy said his committee would continue its investigation into the rough tactics. 

"Ultimately, we've got to get all the facts out, let people know who did what," he said. "Bybee is another example of why these facts should come out."

But some Republicans fired back at the possibility of prosecuting Bush officials.

"Prosecute them for what?" asked Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. "Last time I checked, as a lawyer, when you give legal advice to your client, you're not responsible for whether or not that advice is going to be disagreed with in some future administration. ... These are policy differences, not legal differences, and reasonable lawyers can disagree about the advice that was given."

He added, "If we get to the point where a lawyer cannot give, even if later people believe it to be incorrect, legal advice, then no administration is going to be safe in the future."

When asked if Bybee should have detailed the memos in his 2003 confirmation hearing, Kyl suggested that there was no deception.

"How is that deception on his part, the fact that there are classified memos? He doesn't classify them," he added. "So there are classified memos out there, and he's supposed to reveal their contents to Sen. Leahy before a vote? I mean he would be precluded from doing that I would think."

Kyl noted that Obama said early on that a thorough review of the Bush-era interrogation procedures would go forward.

"It looks to me like the review was just window dressing," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted that the president made a big deal in his first days in office about looking forward rather than backward. 

"And I wish there was as much focus in this administration on policies that will keep us safe here in the United States," he said. "To the extent that the president wants to alter the fundamental policies that have kept us safe for the last eight years since 9/11, it's a matter of some concern."

The Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting its own review of the tactics used on high-value detainees. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the committee, said it would take another six to eight months to complete. Until then, the California Democrat told reporters, "I believe it's best to wait."

Sen Jack Reed, D-R.I., a top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters he supports leaving the door open.

"I don't think they should be given ... sort of carte blanche, sort of reprieve for those who designed the policies, who supervised the policy," he said.

And Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., a former top aide to Vice President Biden and now his replacement in the Senate and on the Judiciary Committee, echoed that sentiment.

"It's a little bit like when we did the church assassination committee hearings, we had to actually have a big public show so everybody knows you can't go around assassinating people," he said. "And I think we need something in the Congress that sends a clear message that if you ever bring this up in the future, that what went on here was wrong, was against the law, and it's not a good precedent for what's going forward."