WASHINGTON — If growing political pressure doesn't subside soon, President Barack Obama may have to do something he's resisted doing since he took office: support a new investigation into how the Bush-era CIA interrogated suspected terrorists using techniques that are widely considered torture.
Again Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama thinks that the idea of a commission wasn't "workable" and that "something like this would likely just become a political back-and-forth."
Liberal activists on Thursday delivered 250,000 petitions to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding an independent prosecutor. Liberals in Congress are calling for a commission. Obama himself all week refused to rule one out, saying that a bipartisan, independent panel would be the best option.
The political oxygen in the nation's capital is now being consumed by rancor over the interrogations. That's why several experts on Congress and previous high-profile investigations think that it's increasingly likely that Obama will call for an independent panel, outside Congress, similar to the 9/11 Commission that examined the 2001 attacks.
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That could help tone down the partisan bitterness over the issue, especially if officials and former officials who testified were given immunity from prosecution. Appointing an independent panel would shift the debate out of Congress so that Obama and lawmakers could resume pursuing his priorities, such as trying to pass an overhaul of health care and tackle global warming.
"The obvious way to do this is you create some blue-ribbon panel with some unimpeachable figure in charge. You do it mostly behind closed doors and then you issue a report," said Norman Ornstein, a veteran political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization.
While Ornstein said it's possible that Obama will wait in hope that the controversy dies down, "the greater likelihood is sometime in the next week or two they decide to create this panel . . . . It is very much in the interest of the president to get it off the front burner."
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he thinks that Obama has "a few weeks, it could stretch into a month" to see if the controversy dies down. "He does want to play it out a little bit, but doesn't want it to go on too long. He can't afford those kinds of emotional distractions; he has such a huge agenda."
Congress remains divided. Some prominent Democrats, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the speaker of the House of Representatives, favor a commission, but others don't, and many liberals balk at offering immunity from prosecution for what they think are crimes.
Republicans oppose any commission. They say its purpose would be vindictive against the Bush administration and would criminalize policy differences.
Other Democrats prefer to wait for a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry to finish before deciding about an independent commission — but that could take six months or more. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday that "until we get that information, I think we would all be better off relaxing."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, is proposing a sort of pre-commission, in which the attorney general would tap a group of "distinguished" experts such as retired judges to examine the available evidence privately and recommend whether further investigation is warranted.
Still other Democrats await the conclusions of a Justice Department inquiry into whether Bush administration lawyers acted professionally in shaping their legal justifications for the techniques in question, including waterboarding, the simulated drowning of detainees.
Following Obama's release last week, however, of four memos detailing those techniques, and the subsequent political firestorm, the clamor for another investigation is growing. On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told MSNBC, "I'm sure there'll be some form of investigation in Congress."
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans oppose the commission idea, but left some wiggle room. That could change, he said, if the inquiry's parameters were expanded to include what the Bush administration did right.
"Before Republicans can take a position on this proposal, they would want to know if we would be looking at what interrogation methods were successful in preventing terror," said spokesman Don Stewart. "They would want to make sure we reviewed how those successes led to keeping the country safe and how we can do that in the future. If this is just MoveOn.Org having their day, that's a different story, and that's what it feels like to everybody."
Daniel Marcus, who served as the general counsel of the 9/11 Commission, said that while the prospects for an independent commission may look more promising since the interrogation memos' release, "It's not a foregone conclusion."
Marcus said that different dynamics separate the two topics. After the 9/11 attacks, victims' families demanded an independent accounting. In this case, however, there isn't the same mass public sympathy for detainees who were interrogated, and there are divisions within the country about how to balance human rights obligations against efforts to secure the country.
Another difference is that the 9/11 Commission looked at the intelligence failings of two administrations, those of Democrat Bill Clinton, as well as of Republican Bush. An interrogation commission, however, would be focused on Bush's failings, giving Republicans less incentive to go along.
Finally, much about the CIA interrogations already is known, from leaks and now-declassified information. That wasn't so in the case of intelligence failures before 9/11. For now, Marcus said, "I think the world is divided."
(David Goldstein contributed to this article.)
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