Holder’s CIA decision comes under fire

Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogations of high-value detainees came under attack Sunday from key figures in both parties.

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has steadily defended the Bush administration’s policies since leaving office, called it a political investigation and repeated his defense of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which he said had thwarted terrorist attacks.

While Cheney’s defense of waterboarding was condemned by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and several Democrats on Sunday, McCain and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) both agreed with Cheney’s criticism of Holder’s decision.

“I think the timing of this is not very good,” Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” She said her panel is studying interrogation techniques, and suggested Holder should allow that work to continue without appointing a special prosecutor.  “Candidly, I wish the attorney general had waited,” she said.

McCain said he agreed with President Barack Obama that it is time to move forward from the fights over interrogation policies that characterized the Bush years.

While Holder has the right to appoint the special prosecutor and should be granted some autonomy by the White House, McCain said the decision is a mistake.

“The attorney general has a unique position in the cabinet; obviously he can't be told what to do by the president,” McCain said. “But I think it's a mistake, and I think in the future we'll find out it's a mistake.”

Holder’s decision came as a bit of a surprise, as before Holder’s announcement last week, Obama had suggested he did not want to re-open scars by appointing a special prosecutor.

At the same time, Obama had made it clear that he wanted to have an independent Justice Department. Democrats believed Justice had become politicized during the Bush administration under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Liberals in Obama’s base have welcomed Holder’s decision and would have been critical if Justice had decided not to investigate the interrogation policies.

McCain, who has long criticized the use of torture to gain information from accused terrorists, flatly rejected Cheney’s statement that the use of waterboarding has kept the country safe by providing useful information on the activities of terrorist groups.

He said the use of the techniques violated the Geneva conventions, hurt the United States’s ability to work with allies and helped al-Queda recruit terrorists.

“I got that from an al-Queda operative in a prison camp in Iraq,” said McCain, who recounted a trip to Iraq with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) where they met with a former high-ranking member of al-Queda.

McCain asked the al-Queda member why he thought the group was successful in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and was told that in addition to the chaos that persisted after the invasion, the pictures of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison “allowed me to recruit thousands” of new members.

McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, also said information could have been obtained in other ways, and that someone undergoing waterboarding will say anything to make the pain stop.

Earlier Sunday, Cheney in a pre-recorded interview with Fox harshly criticized Holder’s decision and said Obama should have stopped him.

“I think it's an outrageous political act that will do great damage long term to our capacity to be able to have people take on difficult jobs, make difficult decisions without having to worry about what the next administration's going to say about it," Cheney said on Fox News Sunday.

“I think if you look at the Constitution, the president of the United States is the chief law enforcement office of the land. The Attorney General is a statutory officer, he’s a member of the cabinet,” Cheney said.

“I think he’s trying to duck the responsibility for what’s going on here, and I think it’s wrong,” Cheney said.

Others expressed worry that the investigation could further lower morale at the CIA, hurting counter-terrorism efforts.

“They're making it so that people at the CIA are afraid to do anything, and we don't want that situation,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the longest-serving member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“We want the toughest people we can have to handle the situation and don't want them thinking twice that they're going to get indicted or they're going to have to go through unpleasant experiences in Congress or that they're going to be mistreated and especially those who give legal opinions,” Hatch said on CNN's State of the Union.

Instead of investigating those who carried out waterboarding and other tough tactics, Cheney said the Obama administration ought to pursue a different approach.

“We had a track record now of eight years of defending the nation against any further mass casualty attacks from al Qaeda," Cheney said. "The approach of the Obama administration should be to come to those people who were involved in that policy and say, 'How did you do it? What were the keys to keeping this country safe over that period of time?’”

Tony Romm contributed to this story.