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Analysis: Obama in crosswinds on detention policy

Analysis: Obama in crosswinds on detention policy

After declaring he would rather look forward, President Barack Obama is delving instead into the past to deal with lingering assertions of CIA mistreatment of terror suspects during the Bush administration. It is another headache for an administration struggling to juggle two wars, a painful recession and a crowded agenda bogged down in Congress.
The selection on Monday of a veteran federal prosecutor to begin a criminal probe of abuse cases and Obama's approval of a new special interrogation panel thrust the president deeper into national security legacies of the Bush years. These include a widening war in Afghanistan, a withdrawal from Iraq and the unresolved fate of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Obama's approval of a new elite interrogation unit, to operate within the FBI but under supervision of an interagency group to be chaired by the White House national security adviser, allowed him to get out in front of the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a government prosecutor and the administration's release of a newly declassified report detailing harsh Bush-era interrogation practices.
According to the material, CIA interrogators conducted mock executions, threatened to kill the children of one detainee and implied that another's mother would be sexually assaulted while he watched.
White House officials said the disclosure of Obama's decision on the new interrogation team on the same day as the release of the report and the prosecutor announcement was coincidental.
Even so, Obama's role in creating the new unit may help keep the controversies alive despite his hopes of putting the Bush administration's contentious interrogation policies behind him and moving on.
Aides said Obama approved the new interrogation unit on Friday, and members of Congress were briefed on it over the weekend.
The new FBI unit will be overseen by a panel comprising many of the same Cabinet agency heads who now sit on the White House National Security Council. The interagency panel, which top White House counterterror adviser John Brennan likens to a "board of directors," will be chaired by Obama's national security adviser, James Jones.
It is not as if the White House did not already have enough on its plate, trying to engineer the biggest health care overhaul in decades and a major energy bill while managing big ownership stakes in auto and financial companies.
Polls show growing public concern about government's increasing activism and its cost.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama continues to believe that those who acted in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance should not be prosecuted, although Gibbs insisted that decisions about whether anyone broke the law would be made by Holder alone.
Holder chose federal prosecutor John Durham on Monday to conduct a formal investigation into what the CIA itself called "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane" practices in its internal report. Durham will look into cases that were rejected for prosecution by Bush's Justice Department.
Obama does not want to be portrayed as being soft on terror suspects and finds himself under pressure from both the right and the left to do something.
"My overall impression is they're trying to be pragmatic while sending the clear message we will not torture any more; but also recognizing the need to get information on terror short of torture," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon said the administration was treading "very delicately" on potential prosecutions and "generally sending the message that we're not going to be too hard on people who thought they were following the orders of the time."
With the president vacationing at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, White House spokesman Bill Burton, traveling with him, quickly found himself on the defensive as he sought to explain that the new unit was not an attempt to water down the interrogation powers of the Central Intelligence Agency, which might add to the spy agency's sinking morale problems.
"The CIA obviously has a very important role to play as it relates to interrogations. They've done a brilliant job in doing it so far, gathering intelligence," Burton told reporters. "So what this does is it houses all these different elements under one group where they can best perform their duties. The intelligence community is going to have a deputy who will be in that group, and obviously the CIA will be very involved in this."
Still, the new arrangement officially brings to an end the CIA's once prime role in interrogating high-level detainees.
Obama has taken heat from both sides on the interrogation abuse issue.
Many Democrats have pressed him to do more in going after interrogators and their superiors. They generally hailed Holder's decision to appoint a prosecutor.
"We hope this is just the beginning," said Justin Ruben, executive director of the liberal MoveOn.org. "The Department of Justice must not only investigate the CIA but also those who ordered, approved and sanctioned the torture."
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, used the day's events to try to rally support for his proposal for a bipartisan "commission of inquiry" that would "find out what happened and why" including the role of the Bush White House.
Republicans want Obama to take a more active role in the war on terror, a term he shuns, and generally condemn any efforts to prosecute those who served under President George W. Bush.
Asserting that the nation still is at war "with terrorists who spend every hour of their day planning how to hurt America and Americans," Sen. Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate's Republican minority, called the decision to name a prosecutor "poor and misguided."
Obama ruled out torture on Day One of his term.
Seven months into his presidency, however, he still is being buffeted by crosswinds as he tries to chart his own course on interrogation and detention to go along with that ban.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Tom Raum has reported on national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.


Updated : 2021-05-11 07:13 GMT+08:00