WASHINGTON — By naming a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA officers or contractors violated the Bush administration's interrogation policies, Attorney General Eric Holder has struck a middle course that isn't likely to satisfy anyone and could complicate President Barack Obama's broader political agenda.
Holder named John Durham, a longtime federal prosecutor in Connecticut, after the CIA Monday released a heavily censored 2004 inspector general's report on abuses by interrogators who exceeded the "enhanced interrogation techniques" the Bush administration Justice Department had approved.
Obama, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard when the decision was announced Monday, sought to keep his distance and mollify all sides. He said through a spokesman that he's focused on the future but committed to letting his attorney general do what he considers necessary.
In an already rancorous political atmosphere, however, anger among Republicans who oppose any prosecutions and liberals who think the administration should pursue the Bush administration officials who authorized the interrogation techniques could make it even harder for Obama to count on broad coalitions to enact his agenda, from health care to climate change and immigration.
"The most immediate effect is, he wants public attention on health care coming out of a difficult August so he can define what this bill is about," said Princeton University history and public affairs professors Julian Zelizer.
"Now, with Holder's announcement, we're going to be talking about national security and torture again. So on that level I do think it's harmful. And it's more red meat for Republicans" who came out of health care town halls charged up. "This builds on the kind of 'socialized medicine' argument of August. Here comes the 'weak on defense' argument of September."
Hours before Holder's announcement, the administration also said that Obama would move the principal responsibility for managing detainee interrogations out of the CIA and into a new interagency group housed at the FBI but overseen by the White House National Security Council.
The top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee called Holder's move a "witch hunt" against those who'd kept American safe since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and predicted "every CIA terror fighter will be in CYA mode."
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., also said that with the change in interrogation oversight, the White House had usurped control and was signaling to the world a loss of confidence in CIA director Leon Panetta and the intelligence community.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky predicted that "the American people will be rightly outraged" by Holder's move.
A group of nine Senate Republicans fired off a letter to Holder criticizing his decision. The group included not only predictable administration critics, but also two members, Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, whom Democrats have looked to for support on health care legislation.
Meanwhile, antiwar, human rights, constitutional law and liberal groups immediately pressed for a more far-reaching probe, renewing calls for independent truth commissions or wide-open criminal probes.
"We hope this is just the beginning," said MoveOn.org's executive director Justin Ruben, whose group claims 5 million members. "We need to make sure those all the way up the chain of command are held responsible for their actions.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that, "Any investigation that focused only on so-called 'rogue' interrogators who acted outside of official authorization, but not senior officials with overall responsibility for the CIA program, would lack credibility."
Virginia Sloan, the president of the Constitution Project, said that, "An examination of a dozen cases will not bring the full scope of U.S. policies to light," and that until a bipartisan commission of inquiry is created, "Americans will forever be looking over our shoulders, wondering what damning facts will next emerge."
Congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the center-left Brookings Institution described Holder's move as "a prudential step that, because it's modest, will not please anyone except people that care about good government."
Despite the venting of emotions, Mann predicted that the naming of a special prosecutor wouldn't derail this year's health care overhaul efforts.
Republicans already were poised to oppose the president's efforts, and Mann predicted that liberal Democrats feel so strongly about expanding coverage that, "I can't believe it won't be dealt with on its own terms."
For now, Mann said, Holder's measured step buys the administration some time, but the political ramifications could rear up after the preliminary investigation.
MoveOn's Ruben said the political repercussions of Holder's move "depends to some degree on where this goes."
"This is a signal that the president is going to support an independent attorney general who's going to enforce the rule of law. That's an important thing for MoveOn members and a lot of other people. The question is whether we ultimately see a full, independent investigation."
Meanwhile, he said, Republicans have seen to fit to use just about every excuse under the sun to avoid working with the president on health care and other issues, so I can certainly see them dropping this into the mix also."
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