The Obama administration is assigning a veteran U.S. prosecutor to begin a criminal probe of CIA questioning of terror suspects during the Bush administration, it was announced Monday. The White House also confirmed it is creating a new terror suspects interrogation unit that it will directly supervise. The developments came on the same day a 2004 report from the CIA inspector general was released revealing interrogation techniques like threatening the suspects' families.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the inspector general's report provides "conclusive evidence" that interrogators overstepped the legal boundaries in place and that their techniques of "torturing detainees in U.S. custody did not make us safer."
"The conduct that is documented in this report illustrates the perils of the dark road of excusing torture down which the Bush administration took this nation," he said. "I also believe it underscores why we need to move forward with a Commission of Inquiry, a nonpartisan review of exactly what happened in these areas, so that we can find out what happened and why. Who justified these policies? What was the role of the Bush White House? How can we make sure it never happens again? Information coming out in dribs and drabs will never paint the full picture."
Though he would ultimately like to see a nonpartisan commission formed to examine the interrogations, Leahy said in a separate statement that Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to investigate the issue should bring a measure of accountability to the American people.
"I am grateful that the Justice Department is finally being led by an independent Attorney General who is willing to begin investigating this dark chapter in our country's history," he said. "I had no doubt that he would put the interests of the law ahead of politics, and he has demonstrated that."
Similarly House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) praised today's news but called for an independent, bipartisan commission to evaluate the broader issues raised by the Bush administration's "brutal torture program."
"Today's release -- even of these still heavily redacted materials -- is thus an important step toward restoring the rule of law in this country, and rebuilding our credibility around the world," he said. "But much more remains to be done. The gruesome acts described in today's report did not happen in a vacuum. It would not be fair or just for frontline personnel to be held accountable while the policymakers and lawyers escape scrutiny after creating and approving conditions where such abuses were all but inevitable to occur."
However, Republicans took an opposite view of the administration's actions. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that creating a task force of interrogation specialists could be worthwhile but runs the risk of becoming politicized. He said it represented a lack of faith in the intelligence community.
"What does the White House have against Leon Panetta?" asked Bond. "This bizarre move is a vote of no confidence in not only the terror-fighters who have kept us safe since 9-11 but their very own CIA Director."
Bond also called the White House's supervision terrorist interrogations a power grab.
"Chrysler and Citigroup apparently weren't enough," he said. "Now the White House is taking over the CIA and how we interrogate Usama bin Laden. Even the Democrats' favorite boogeyman Dick Cheney did not take over terrorist interrogations."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested in a statement that the Bush White House, in fact, should have intervened -- and that the CIA inspector general was the only official during the Bush administration to conduct serious oversight of the interrogation program.
"The Inspector General's report raised serious concerns about the program, and I believe this is one of the reasons that CIA leadership later attempted to undermine his independence," he said. "When the Administration withholds information from Congress, the Office of the Inspector General is the only entity providing objective oversight of sensitive intelligence programs, and that is why it is vital that the independence of the Inspector General be guarded."
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement saying that an increased focus on America's past counterterrorism efforts will distract from current efforts.
"At the same time the situation in Afghanistan is getting decidedly worse and the Taliban is advancing, the Obama Justice Department is launching an investigation that risks disrupting CIA counterterrorism initiatives," he said. "This is the last thing that should happen when the president is sending more troops into harm's way, and the nation's top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said over the weekend that al-Qaeda still remains a threat to America and our interests abroad."
Hoekstra's statement echoed arguments made by nine Republican senators who sent a letter to Holder last week, asking him to refrain from starting an investigation.
"The country would be better served if the Justice Department refocuses its priorities and allocates its resources to pressing matters — such as prosecuting the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks — instead of contemplating legal action against the men and women who have dedicated their lives to protecting this country," they wrote.
In an e-mail sent to his agency today, CIA Director Leon Panetta said he would stand up for the officers who followed the legal guidance they were given.