U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department will pursue any wrongdoing found in its investigation of Bush administration detainee interrogation practices. But in an appearance before a congressional panel Thursday, he said he would not allow what he called criminalization of policy differences over such practices.
Attorney General Holder came before a House appropriations subcommittee to discuss the Justice Department's budget request for next year.
But the session was dominated by questions over whether he would seek prosecutions of Bush administration officials responsible for extreme interrogation techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency on top terrorism suspects.
Holder responded that as attorney general, he was responsible for enforcing the law and would pursue wrongdoing if he found it. But he said there would be limits. "I will not permit the criminalization of policy differences. With regard to those members of the intelligence community who acted in good faith and in reliance with Justice Department opinions that were shared with them, it is not our intention to prosecute those individuals," he said
Members of Congress are divided over whether there should be an investigation of Bush administration officials who were responsible for the harsh interrogation practices, some of which - including waterboarding, or simulated drowning - critics describe as torture.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, supports a nonpartisan commission to probe the matter, but says he would have his own panel investigate if lawmakers are reluctant to support the idea of a commission.
Republicans oppose investigating the issue. Several of them have called on President Barack Obama not to allow prosecutions of Bush administration officials who offered legal advice on interrogations, saying it would have a negative effect on the candor with which officials in any administration provide their best advice.
Congressman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who chaired Thursday's hearing, says he supports Attorney General Holder's approach. "I don't want things swept under the rug. I also don't want to see people, in their zeal to go after wrongdoing, catching people in the net who don't belong there," he said.
Holder responded to Republican critics who say the Obama administration's decision to end harsh interrogation practices will deprive U.S. authorities of tools to effectively deal with terrorism suspects.
"The systems that I think we will use or have to put in place will be ones that will be fair, that will be consistent with our notions of due process and that ultimately will protect the American people. I do not want anyone to leave with the misimpression that somehow, some way, we are going to be soft on people who were responsible for the horrors of 9/11 (the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001). They are going to be held accountable, but in a way consistent with who we are as Americans," he said.
Former Vice President Cheney has urged the Obama administration to release classified documents detailing what intelligence was gained from the extreme interrogations - a call repeated by the top Republican on the House panel, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia.
Holder said he is willing to release as much information as possible. "Let me say this: it is certainly the intention of this administration not to play hide and seek or not to release certain things in a way that is not consistent with other things. It is not our intention to advance a political agenda or to hide things from the American people," he said.
Holder said he was not sure exactly which documents Cheney was referring to because he has not seen them. But he suggested such memos may exist at other agencies.