Published December 24, 2015
President Obama left open the door Tuesday for charges to be brought against Bush administration lawyers who justified harsh interrogation techniques, though he continued to argue that CIA agents who used those tactics should not be prosecuted.
The president showed wiggle room on the issue as he faces calls from Democratic lawmakers and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to support such charges. Asked about the possibility of prosecution related to the interrogation program, the president deferred to Attorney General Eric Holder.
"With respect to those who formulate 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," Obama said, as he finished an Oval Office meeting with visiting King Abdullah of Jordan. "And I don't want to prejudge that. ... There are a host of very complicated issues involved there."
It was the first time Obama took a question on the matter since his administration released a string of previously classified memos detailing harsh interrogation tactics used against terror suspects. At the time, Obama said agents who followed Department of Justice advice would not be prosecuted.
He reiterated that point Tuesday. "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," he said.
But while he also repeated his view that investigations into Bush officials could get politicized, he indicated for the first time an openness to such a course provided it is carried out in a "bipartisan fashion."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama did not have a change of heart on the issue, though Gibbs and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel indicated over the past two days that the president did not favor opening the memos' authors to charges.
Gibbs deflected the suggestion that the president was responding to pressure from the left to support prosecutions.
But pressure was building before Obama addressed the issue Tuesday for his administration to leave the possibility of prosecution on the table -- both for the lawyers who established the legal ground for such interrogations and those agents who acted outside those legal guidelines.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to Obama Monday asking him to reserve comment on the issue while her panel completes its review of detainee interrogations. She estimated the study would be completed in six to eight months.
MoveOn is also seeking 200,000 signatures for a petition to Holder urging him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the interrogations.
A Newsweek article over the weekend reported that Holder had already discussed naming a special prosecutor to review whether interrogators operated outside the legal guidelines or Bush officials broke the law by drafting those guidelines.
One source familiar with the matter told FOX News that, if appointed, a prosecutor would most likely be limited to pursuing "aiding and abetting" charges against the lawyers who wrote the memos.
"If (Justice attorneys) go after them, that's all they can get them on because they didn't torture but they facilitated the torture," the source said, adding that prosecutors first have to prove a criminal act of torture was committed.
"But if I were these people, I would still get a very good lawyer," the source said.
The Department of Justice statement on the memos last week first seemed to leave room for certain prosecutions. The statement said Holder stressed that agents who acted within the legal guidelines from the Justice Department would not face prosecutions -- it did not mention the lawyers or those who acted outside the guidelines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.