Reversing weeks of White House resistance to the idea, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he’s open to creating a blue-ribbon panel to investigate Bush administration excesses during the war on terror.
“If and when there needs to be a fuller accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break entirely along party lines, . . . that would probably be a more sensible approach to take,” Obama said during an Oval Office press availability with King Abdullah of Jordan.
Obama stopped short of endorsing the “truth commission” idea which has been advanced in recent months by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) However, his comments were markedly more positive toward the idea than those of White House aides, who have repeatedly brushed aside the suggestion.
“I’m not suggesting that that should be done but I’m saying, if you’ve got a choice, I think it’s very important for the American people to feel this is not being done—to provide one side or the other political advantage but rather it’s being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way,” Obama said.
Obama also expressed concern that a fact-finding effort could evolve into a political battle that would distract the country’s security apparatus. “I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers out our ability to carry out critical national security operations,” he said.
And he said any hearings into torture should have “independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility.”
Obama indicated that while he has promised not to prosecute Central Intelligence Agency interrogators who relied on official legal advice, that amnesty does not extend to those who drafted the legal opinions authorizing the harsh interrogation tactics.
“I would say that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general, weighing the parameters of various laws and I don’t want to prejudge that. There are a host of very complicated issues involved there.”
In a television interview Sunday, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said there would be no prosecutions of those who devised the interrogation policies. White House aides later signaled that Emanuel misspoke.
CIA Director Leon Panetta may have foreshadowed Obama’s new openness to the commission idea Monday when the president visited the agency’s headquarters in Virginia.
"As a former member of Congress like you, I understand and appreciate the role of the legislative branch in reviewing what happened, to hopefully learn the lessons from the past. And I have made clear that we will fully cooperate with these efforts," Panetta said as he introduced Obama. "But as you have said this is a time for reflection not retribution. We must be careful not to spend so much time and energy in laying blame for the past that it interferes with our ability to focus on the fundamental mission we have for today and for tomorrow—that of defeating our enemy and keeping our nation safe."