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Ethics Report on Interrogation Memos Won't Deter Those Calling for New Probe

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at his ceremonial installation in Washington March 27. (Reuters Photo)

Democrats and liberal groups seem far from ready to close the books on the alleged wrongdoings of the Bush administration if an internal ethics report, as expected, recommends that Department of Justice lawyers who authored the so-called "torture memos" not face criminal prosecution. 

In a matter of weeks, the DOJ could finalize its draft report, now 200 pages long, in an investigation that began five years ago. 

The report, according to two officials, will recommend that three lawyers who authored memos justifying enhanced interrogation techniques face disciplinary action by state bar associations, rather than prosecutions. 

But the American Civil Liberties Union is urging Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate further, regardless of the ethics report findings. 

"We still would call upon him to appoint a special counsel to review a variety of allegations, and it's not just the lawyers. It's the chain of command," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office. Asked if she meant former President Bush, Frederickson said: "If need be." 

Fredrickson said the ACLU is seeing "conflicting signals" over where the Obama administration intends to go with possible prosecutions, and she noted that Congress is "geared up" to investigate. She said activist groups will continue to apply pressure to the administration to act, even if it follows the report's recommendation in the near term. 

"I don't know if I could call it a backlash, but if the administration doesn't have the appetite to pursue an investigation as it should, then Congress would definitely step in and pick up the slack," she said. 

ACLU Director Anthony Romero issued a written statement saying it would set a "dangerous precedent" to shield the memos' authors from criminal investigations. 

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said his group also continues to call for a special counsel to investigate regardless of the ethics inquiry draft findings, which he said amount to a "professional slap on the wrist." 

He said it is "shocking" that the inquiry might not recommend prosecution "after all of the evidence of abuse and torture that have resulted from the legal reasoning of the people at issue."

Key Democrats on Capitol Hill are waiting to see the Justice report before making a call on where to go next. Representatives for the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees reserved comment on the matter Wednesday. Both Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., have called for commissions to probe the Bush interrogation program and other issues. 

"(Leahy) still believes that would be the best way to proceed," said a representative for the Vermont Democrat. 

A separate investigation on the Senate Intelligence Committee will proceed on its own track as well, regardless of the Justice findings. An Intelligence Committee aide said that's expected to take another six to eight months. 

The ACLU and other groups recently sent petitions to Holder demanding that he name an independent prosecutor. A group of congressional Democrats wrote Holder last month requesting the same. 

At the White House briefing Wednesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs punted when asked whether the memos' lawyers would avoid criminal prosecution. 

"Well, this is a report that's being conducted at the appropriate place, an independent office in the Justice Department. They'll make an independent analysis," Gibbs said. "As you have heard me and the president say countless number of times, the president doesn't decide who abides by and who breaks the law. That's what the Justice Department does, and this review is being conducted by an independent department in the Justice Department." 

The three Justice Department lawyers at the center of the controversy are Jay Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge; John Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley; and Steven Bradbury, now gone from the Justice Department. 

At the heart of the probe are the legal opinions, drafted between 2002 and 2007, that allowed the CIA to implement the "enhanced" interrogation program, which included the waterboarding of high-value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Four memos were released by the Obama administration last month. 

The ethics probe drew attention this week because the three lawyers were asked to submit their response to the draft report. The Washington Post reported that the lawyers had launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to tone down the report. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., released a statement Tuesday saying they were "heartened" to learn the review is nearly complete but "disappointed" to learn the department allowed the lawyers to respond to the report. 

FOX News' Catherine Herridge and FOXNews.com's Judson Berger contributed to this report.