Did Obama 'Accidentally' Re-Open Show Trial Question?

Dan Balz looks at the White House’s clumsy handling of the debate over terrorist interrogation. Interestingly, there’s no hint – either from Balz’s piece or from other administration officials – that the President’s change of position was intentional. Read the piece and judge for yourself:

The legacy of George W. Bush continued to dog President Obama and his administration yesterday, as Congress divided over creating a panel to investigate the harsh interrogation techniques employed under Bush’s authorization and the White House tried to contain the controversy over the president’s decision to release Justice Department memos justifying and outlining those procedures.

Obama had hoped to put the whole matter behind him, first by banning those interrogation methods early in his presidency and then by releasing the memos last week with the proviso that no CIA official who carried out interrogations should be prosecuted.

Instead, the latest decision has stirred controversy on the right and the left. Obama has drawn sharp criticism from former vice president Richard B. Cheney, former CIA directors and Republican elected officials for releasing the memos. Those critics see softness in the commander in chief. He faces equally strong reaction from the left, where there is a desire to punish Bush administration officials for their actions and to conduct a more thorough investigation of what happened…

Obama apparently thought he could avoid what is now playing out. In the weeks when he was weighing the release of the memos, a vigorous debate took place within his administration. There was, according to a senior official, considerable support among Obama’s advisers for the creation of a 9/11 Commission-style investigation as an alternative to releasing the documents. But the president quashed the concept.

“His concern was that would ratchet the whole thing up,” the official said. “His whole thing is: ‘I banned all this. This chapter is over. What we don’t need now is to become a sort of feeding frenzy where we go back and re-litigate all this.’ “


White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel contributed to the perception that this was the administration’s position. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, he said that neither the CIA officials who carried out the harsh interrogations nor the Justice Department officials who authorized them should be prosecuted. “It’s not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back [in] any sense of anger and retribution,” he said…

When Obama was pressed on this and other questions Tuesday, he said he was not prepared to rule out prosecutions of some of those responsible for setting the policy. What seemed to be off the table Monday was suddenly back on it.

White House officials said the president’s words were not a change in policy, but the headlines and the television commentary said otherwise. Now, Obama finds himself in the middle of a storm that may or may not pass quickly…

White House officials have expressed confidence that a congressionally backed investigation will not come to pass. But they have been drawn into a debate they did not foresee. The president has a full plate, domestically and internationally. He had hoped that, in winning the election and moving quickly to change his predecessor’s policies, he could close the books on Bush’s presidency.

Reading the tea leaves, it doesn’t sound as if the President ever intended to signal that there may be prosecution of Department of Justice employees for doing their jobs. It seems that putting the issue to bed has been the ongoing goal of the White House (if not those in Congress). Holder had left open the possibility of prosecution, but as the Attorney General it’s hard for him to promise to overlook crimes. But before Obama’s surprising change of position on Monday, both Emanuel and Gibbs had been on the same page – and they are more likely to reflect the President’s views than Holder.

I probably shouldn’t point this out, but Obama was answering questions when he went off-message. And when he answers questions, he’s walking a tightrope without a net. And if Obama went off-message because his crutch was missing, that’s not the sort of defense Gibbs and Emanuel would race to offer the press. Rather, they’d probably try to get Holder to say something vague and non-committal, and then they’d sit tight and say nothing more about the subject and hope it went away.

Update: Of course, given what DoJ is saying now, it’s possible that this is just a case of there being no grown ups in the administration. Maybe no one is setting policy.