In major shift, Justice to probe CIA

In a major reversal from the Bush administration that was hailed by liberals and panned by Republicans, the Justice Department on Monday announced it would probe whether the CIA abused suspected terrorists.

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Attorney General Eric Holder said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal abuse of suspected terrorists by CIA employees and contractors.

In announcing the special prosecutor, Holder reversed a decision by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush not to investigate possible prisoner abuses detailed by a 2004 CIA inspector general report.

While President Barack Obama has taken a more direct role in future detainee interrogations, he has distanced himself from the decision to investigate alleged abuses during the Bush era, attempting to shield himself from political criticism.

Obama’s press office reminded reporters that “the president has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back.”

“Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the attorney general,” it stated.

The White House also announced the creation of a special team based at the FBI that would spearhead the interrogation of terrorist detainees, a job that traditionally has belonged to the CIA. The program, known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), will operate under the National Security Council, giving the White House direct oversight. 

The decision to investigate alleged crimes during the Bush administration is welcome news for liberals, many of whom have expressed frustration over the president’s handling of healthcare reform.

Liberals such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) applauded Holder’s decision.

“I recognize how difficult this decision has been for Attorney General Holder, and I am grateful that the Justice Department is finally being led by an independent attorney general who is willing to begin investigating this dark chapter in our country’s history,” Leahy said in a statement.

Leahy, who has advocated for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate detainee abuses, said he still believed that “a nonpartisan, independent review is the best way to get the full picture of how our laws were applied or broken.” Nevertheless, he endorsed the Justice Department investigation as something that would “bring a measure of accountability to the American people.”

Republicans pounced immediately on Monday’s developments, with Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, ripping the president for undermining the CIA.

“First the White House usurps control over terrorist interrogations, signaling to the world they have lost confidence in Leon Panetta and our intelligence community, and now the Obama Justice Department launches a witch-hunt targeting the terror-fighters who have kept us safe since 9/11,” said Bond, who raised concerns that giving the White House oversight of interrogations would “politicize” intelligence collection.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said: “Now the administration risks chilling our defense and intelligence community’s ability to protect us from future terrorist attacks by reopening this matter.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who caucuses with Democrats but often breaks with his party on national security issues, also panned the decision to probe CIA officers.

Lieberman, who has clashed with Obama over national security in the past, expressed his strong disagreement.

“I respectfully regret this decision by Attorney General Holder and fear our country will come to regret it too, because an open-ended criminal investigation of past CIA activity, which has already been condemned and prohibited, will have a chilling effect on the men and women agents of our intelligence community whose uninhibited bravery and skill we depend on every day to protect our homeland from the next terrorist attack," Lieberman said in the statement.

Holder’s decision also was strongly endorsed in a letter to members of Congress by a group of former interrogators who worked for the Bush administration.

The interrogators — an FBI interrogator, a former military interrogator and a career intelligence officer — sent a letter on Aug. 21 to the House and Senate Democrats in charge of the Intelligence and Judiciary panels in support of the contentious idea.

“If the attorney general takes this important step forward, it will reaffirm the enduring power of our system of checks and balances,” the former interrogators wrote to lawmakers, including Leahy and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Jack Cloonan, Steven Kleinman and Matthew Alexander signed the letter.

Cloonan was the senior case agent assigned to the "bin Laden Squad" in the New York Office of the FBI from 1996 to 2002. 

Kleiman is a former director of the Air Force Combat Interrogation Course and most recently served as a senior adviser on a Director of National Intelligence-commissioned study on strategic interrogation. 

Alexander led an interrogations team assigned to a Special Operations task force in Iraq in 2006. He conducted over 300 interrogations and supervised another 1,000.

Holder said he would appoint assistant U.S. attorney John Durham, who investigated the destruction of CIA videotapes of detainee interrogations, to conduct the probe.

Holder said he is expanding the mandate then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey gave Durham in 2008 to investigate the tapes’ destruction, noting that Durham has gained familiarity with the intelligence agency.

“I want to emphasize that neither the opening of a preliminary review nor, if evidence warrants it, the commencement of a full investigation means that charges will necessarily follow,” Holder said in a statement.

This article was posted at 4:22 and updated at 6:57 p.m.