President Barack Obama is leaving the door open to the possible prosecution of Bush administration officials who approved harsh interrogation methods for suspected terror detainees after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. At the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said he worries that any congressional hearings on the policies could be politically divisive, but that he could support a bi-partisan inquiry.
Last week, the Obama administration triggered a heated debate over how much should be revealed about detainee policies when it released four Bush administration legal memos that authorized controversial interrogation methods.
President Obama assured CIA agents and interrogators that they would not face prosecution, as long as they acted in good faith under the legal guidance provided to them at the time by the Justice Department.
Since then, two Obama administration officials have said the president also does not want those who devised the controversial methods, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning, to face prosecution.
But when asked on Tuesday about those who formulated the legal decisions that enabled the interrogations to take place, President Obama had a different answer. "That is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws and I don't want to prejudge that," he said.
The president has come under pressure since releasing the memos. Former CIA chiefs and several Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Obama, saying that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques damages U.S. national security.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has strongly criticized President Obama for banning "enhanced interrogation measures" used by the Bush administration and for promising to close down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Cheney weighed in on the debate in an interview with Fox News on Monday, saying that the Obama administration did not release the memos that show the interrogations were successful in obtaining useful intelligence information. "I know specifically reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country," he said.
Cheney said he has asked the CIA to declassify the additional memos, so that the country can have an "honest debate".
Meanwhile, leaders of several human rights and civil rights organizations, and some Democratic lawmakers are calling for further investigations into Bush administration detainee policies and for those responsible for any techniques that crossed the line into torture to be prosecuted.
President Obama appeared to be feeling the pressure from both sides on Tuesday, saying he fears that any congressional hearings into detainee policies would end up split along party lines, creating more divisions. "I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations," he said.
The president said he could support congressional investigations, but only under certain conditions -- with independent participants who are above reproach. "I think it is very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage, but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward," he said.
President Obama indicated that his preference would not be to spend a lot of time on the volatile issue, saying again that he thinks the country should be looking forward, and not backward.