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Interrogation 'morass' for Obama

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

US President Barack Obama is wading through the legal, political and moral morass created by the Bush administration's approval of interrogation techniques, which he - and many others - consider to be torture.

President Barack Obama gestures after addressing CIA staff on 20 April, 2009
President Obama praised CIA staff for their dedication in protecting the US

It has turned out to be a tricky path to navigate.

By publishing the legal advice that his predecessor used to justify the techniques, yet making it clear that he does not intend to press charges against those involved in the decision-making or the interrogations, he has left himself open to criticism from the right and the left.

Some of the strongest comments have come from his own supporters, who believe that the president can not simply wipe the slate clean; that his call for "reflection, not retribution", amounts to a whitewash.

There are plenty of voices calling for a full investigation, with charges being pressed against anyone found to have committed acts of torture in the name of the United States.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to the White House on Monday, in which she urged the president to defer judgment on potential prosecutions, until after the Senate has conducted its own investigation.

One of her colleagues, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has been calling for a truth and reconciliation commission.

They have had support from the New York Times.

In an editorial, the newspaper called for the impeachment of Jay Bybee, a federal judge, who - as assistant attorney general under President George W Bush - was the author of some of what it described as "these sickening memos".

'Security threat'

In another awkward development for the Obama administration, details emerged over the weekend about the extent to which these harsh interrogation techniques were used on some of the so-called "high value" terrorism suspects.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 11 September attacks, was apparently "waterboarded" on 183 occasions.

A detainee being escorted at Guantanamo Bay prison camp
Mr Obama banned the controversial techniques in his first week in office

Another prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, is said to have been subjected to the simulated drowning procedure 83 times.

These figures contradict previous testimony by ex-CIA officers and would appear to raise legitimate questions about whether interrogators may have overstepped legal guidelines.

On the right, much of the criticism has come from former Bush administration officials, who may be concerned that they will - despite President Obama's assurances - be dragged into some kind of legal process.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former CIA chief Michael Hayden have both alleged that the release of the memos threatens national security, by allowing prospective terrorists an insight into the precise limits of US interrogations.

The Obama administration's response: those techniques are illegal, so it is a moot point.

But others are making their points as well. Even as the president was attempting to patch up his differences with the CIA - getting a warm reception during a visit to the agency's Langley headquarters - former Vice-President Dick Cheney was keeping the political heat under the issue.

He has urged the CIA to release documents showing the success of the controversial interrogation techniques.

The CIA's treatment of terror suspects has been a particularly controversial chapter in recent US history, so it is not surprising, perhaps, that Barack Obama's attempt to turn the page is attracting its own share of controversy as well.



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