President Barack Obama today declared the US lost its “moral bearings” with gruesome interrogations of suspected terrorists and left the way open to possible prosecution of those who authorised them.
“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.
Mr Obama has said he does not want to see prosecutions of CIA agents and interrogators who took part in waterboarding and other harsh methods, as long as they acted within the advice from superiors that such practices were legal at the time. But the Obama administration’s stance on the Bush administration lawyers who wrote the memos approving the tactics has been less clear.
“There are a host of very complicated issues involved,” he said.
Mr Obama took a question on the topic for the first time since he ordered last Thursday’s release of top-secret Bush-era memos that give the government’s first full accounting of the CIA’s use of simulated drowning and other harsh methods while questioning terror suspects. Mr Obama banned all the techniques days after taking office, but lawsuits and members of Congress have continued to seek the release of information about the early stages of the US response to the September 11 attacks.
The president also said he worries about the impact of high-intensity, politicised hearings on how detainees were treated.
The president made clear that his preference would be not to revisit the era extensively.
“As a general view, I do think we should be looking forward, not back,” Mr Obama said. “I do worry about this getting so politicised that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.”
Last week, Obama’s Justice Department published previously classified memos that described the Bush administration’s legal justification for CIA interrogation techniques that included methods criticised as torture.
On one side, Republican politicians and former CIA chiefs have criticised the memos’ release, contending that revealing the limits of interrogation techniques will hamper the effectiveness of interrogators and critical US relationships with foreign intelligence services.
On the other , the memos appear to increase calls for further investigations of the Bush-era terrorist treatment program and for prosecutions of those responsible for any techniques that crossed the line into torture.
Former vice president Dick Cheney said the US government gained valuable intelligence from its aggressive interrogations of high-value detainees after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Many of the old interrogation methods – including so-called “waterboarding” - have been banned. Waterboarding involves placing a person on his back and pouring water on a wet towel over his face to simulate drowning. Other tactics entail stripping a detainee naked, depriving him of sleep, physically striking him and putting a hood over his head.
But in an interview with Fox News Channel, Mr Cheney said yesterday that what has not been revealed publicly is what the US gained as a result of these activities.
“I know specifically of 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,” Mr Cheney said.