Barack Obama has said that he intends to “look forward, not back” when it comes to demands that Bush administration officials be held accountable for the kinds of interrogation techniques they used against detainees. Yesterday, he assured CIA officers that anyone who followed legal advice from the Bush White House would not be prosecuted. But now after renewed demands for investigations, Obama is keeping the door open to going after the lawyers who crafted the advice. The decision is now up to his attorney general, Eric Holder, Obama said at a press conference this morning at the Oval Office with King Abduallah of Jordan:
QUESTION: I want to ask you about the interrogation memos that you released last week; two questions. You were clear about not wanting to prosecute those who carried out the instructions under this legal advice. Can you be that clear about those who devised the policy? And then quickly on a second matter, how do you feel about investigations, whether special — a special commission or something of that nature on the Hill to go back and really look at the issue?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the — look, as I said before, this has been a difficult chapter in our history, and one of the tougher decisions that I’ve had to make as President. On the one hand, we have very real enemies out there. And we rely on some very courageous people, not just in our military but also in the Central Intelligence Agency, to help protect the American people. And they have to make some very difficult decisions because, as I mentioned yesterday, they are confronted with an enemy that doesn’t have scruples, that isn’t constrained by constitutions, aren’t constrained by legal niceties.
Having said that, the OLC memos that were released reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings. That’s why I’ve discontinued those enhanced interrogation programs.
For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted.
With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that 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. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there.
As a general deal, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.
And so if and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break it entirely along party lines, to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take.
I’m not suggesting that that should be done, but I’m saying, if you’ve got a choice, I think it’s very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way.
And the last point I just want to emphasize, as I said yesterday at the CIA when I visited, what makes America special in my view is not just our wealth and the dynamism of our economy and our extraordinary history and diversity. It’s that we are willing to uphold our ideals even when they’re hard. And sometimes we make mistakes because that’s the nature of human enterprise. But when we do make mistakes, then we are willing to go back and correct those mistakes and keep our eye on those ideals and values that have been passed on generation to generation.
And that is what has to continue to guide us as we move forward. And I’m confident that we will be able to move forward, protect the American people effectively, and live up to our values and ideals. And that’s not a matter of being naive about how dangerous this world is. As I said yesterday to some of the CIA officials that I met with, I wake up every day thinking about how to keep the American people safe. And I go to bed every night worrying about keeping the American people safe.
I’ve got a lot of other things on my plate. I’ve got a big banking crisis, and I’ve got unemployment numbers that are very high, and we’ve got an auto industry that needs work. There are a whole things — range of things that during the day occupy me, but the thing that I consider my most profound obligation is keeping the American people safe.
So I do not take these things lightly, and I am not in any way under illusion about how difficult the task is for those people who are on the front lines every day protecting the American people.
So I wanted to communicate a message yesterday to all those who overwhelmingly do so in a lawful, dedicated fashion that I have their back.
All right? Thank you, everybody.