Page last updated at 22:21 GMT, Monday, 24 August 2009 23:21 UK

Obama's dilemma over CIA tactics

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

US President Barack Obama playing golf, 24 August 2009
President Obama still has to deal with Bush's legacy - even on holiday

Barack Obama has begun his summer holiday at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, one of those elegantly appointed seaside resorts where wealthy American liberals seek spiritual refreshment.

Facilities at the 30-acre farm rented by the first family have been exhaustively catalogued (it includes a basketball hoop and a golf hole) and ground rules have been set for the huge press corps which has migrated to the beach with the Obamas.

Essentially they boil down to a request to allow the president's daughters Sasha and Malia to enjoy themselves in peace.

We have also been furnished with Mr Obama's reading list which seems to have been put together to impress us, rather than to entertain him - it includes a biography of John Adams, America's second president and a book about the promise of the green revolution.

It does not include any of those airport thrillers about the exploits of the CIA and its agents.

The implication is that Mr Obama will be hearing more than enough of those before, during and after his holiday as the story of how the Bush administration handled terror suspects at the height of its war on terror continues to unfold.

A report by the CIA's own inspector general compiled in 2004, which had previously been published only in a heavily redacted form (so much of the text was blanked out that it was rendered incomprehensible), has now been placed in the public domain on the orders of a federal judge.

Graphic reading

It makes extraordinary reading with its descriptions of how CIA interrogators pressured 9/11 suspects - threatening that their children would be killed, or their mothers sexually assaulted in front of them.

CIA report with sections redacted
The 2004 report was released with parts blacked out

It is graphic stuff - but the issue of what to do about it is presenting the Obama administration with one of its most difficult dilemmas.

The US is in recession, in the middle of an escalating war in Afghanistan and is also locked in a divisive debate about healthcare reform.

But the past - the legacy of the Bush administration's war on terror - simply will not go away.

The question is now that these startling depictions of the handling of those suspects are in the public domain is - what should happen next?

Mr Obama's own instincts on the matter are interesting.

He talks of wanting to look to the future, not the past, which is a clear enough signal that if it were up to him he might well decide on balance that it would be better not to re-open old wounds.

And there is some evidence to back that up. In May the president moved to block the release of 2,000 or so photographs which show the mistreatment of prisoners in American hands in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He does not want to inflame anti-American feelings around the world of course, but he does not want to alienate the professionals within America's own intelligence agencies on which his government depends.

The problem is that below the cautious pragmatism of the White House rages a partisan political battle over how these issues should be handled.

Bush on trial

For one thing, America's human-rights lobby wants full disclosure - the impetus for the release of the full text of that CIA report came from legal action taken by the American Civil Liberties Union.

But on the left of the Democratic Party there is a real appetite for proceeding with further investigations into these interrogations and for prosecutions.

In the eyes of many, this is an opportunity to put the Bush administration itself on trial.

For years, while George W Bush was in the White House, Democrats railed impotently against what they regarded as illegal wars, immoral detention and interrogation techniques, and a dark and secretive political atmosphere in which they sense American values were betrayed.

They have the upper hand now and they want to take advantage of this.

Conservatives, though, will argue that the harsh interrogations came at a desperate moment in American history, in the aftermath of 9/11 when the CIA was under huge pressure to establish how great the dangers were of further attacks on American soil.

The interrogators could be cast as dedicated intelligence officers, ruthless only in the cause of protecting their fellow citizens.

For the moment, the human-rights lobby appears to have the upper hand in the debate.

US Attorney General Eric Holder
The probe ordered by Eric Holder could provide breathing space for Mr Obama

A report from an ethics committee within the Department of Justice called for a dozen cases to be re-opened, and Attorney General Eric Holder has now appointed one of his department's prosecutors to look into allegations of abuse.

The attorney general's announcement fell short of saying that the department lawyer charged with the task would be able to subpoena witnesses - as an independent counsel can.

Could that be a clue as to how likely it is that CIA operatives will end up in the dock?

Mr Obama's new man at the CIA, the veteran Washington insider Leon Panetta, wrote to his staff saying "in many ways [this is] an old story", and making the point that the CIA did manage to gather useful intelligence about al-Qaeda when it was in short supply.

So there are signs at least of differences of emphasis within the administration.

Mr Obama's advisers will be horrified at the idea of going into the mid-term elections at the end of next year with the impression in the air that Republicans are tough on national security issues, while they are merely tough on Republicans.

Mr Holder's new investigation will provide a measure of breathing space on the issue for the White House.

The search will now once again be on for some way to defuse the landmines left by the old administration in the path of the new.

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