WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee's top Republican on Friday pulled out of a probe of Bush administration intelligence-gathering techniques, blasting current Attorney General Eric Holder for taking steps that he said could handcuff Congress.
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., the committee's vice chairman, said that the panel should be looking at more pressing issues, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The committee cannot give these matters sufficient attention if we are spinning our wheels in an endless document review," he said.
Holder last month named John Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor in Connecticut, as a special prosecutor to assess whether Central Intelligence Agency officials or contractors should be subject to criminal investigations for alleged torture of terrorism detainees. Earlier, Bond had objected to the Holder investigation.
The attorney general's decision came after the release of a heavily redacted 2004 CIA inspector general's report detailing abuses by interrogators who exceeded even the power given them by the Bush Justice Department to use techniques such as waterboarding, which is regarded as torture.
The Holder decision has been controversial, particularly since President Barack Obama had said he wanted to look "forward, not back," at this nation's use of torture.
The White House has emphasized that decisions about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the Justice Department.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee has wanted to conduct its own look at the matter.
But, said Bond, Holder's action makes that difficult.
"Had Mr. Holder honored the pledge made by the president to look forward not backwards, we would still be active participants in the committee's review," Bond said Friday.
Instead, he said, Justice "sent a loud and clear message that previous decisions to decline prosecution mean nothing and old criminal charges can be brought anytime against anyone."
"Against these odds," he said, "what current or former CIA employee would be willing to gamble his freedom by answering the committee's questions?"
Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said Holder "believed the appropriate course of action was to ask John Durham to conduct a preliminary review" given recommendations from the Office of Professional Responsibility, the department's ethics watchdog.
"His decision was made in line with his duty to examine the facts and to follow the law," Miller said of Holder.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., vowed that her work would go on.
"I very much regret the fact that the Republican side of the Intelligence Committee has chosen not to continue to participate in the committee's study and investigation into the detention and interrogation of high-value detainees," she said.
"However," Feinstein added, "that study and investigation is being pursued, additional staff are being hired, and the committee is continuing the work with all due diligence."
Bond countered that the committee will have a difficult time.
"The committee cannot complete its review in a reasonable time if witnesses won't talk to us," he said.
"While there is value to learning from past experiences, there are other areas in need of current congressional oversight, including the war in Afghanistan, Iran's intentions with respect to ballistic missiles, and expiring FISA terror fighting tools," Bond said. "The committee cannot give these matters sufficient attention if we are spinning our wheels in an endless document review."
Anticipating criticism that his decision would have a chilling effect on intelligence-gathering, Holder said the probe would be limited to determining whether interrogators used techniques that went beyond those authorized by the Bush administration, not single out those "who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance."
The Justice Department won't provide details about the latest investigation, which involves fewer than a dozen cases, but officials acknowledged that it includes incidents the department reviewed and declined to prosecute several years ago. In several of the reviewed cases, detainees died.
(David Goldstein contributed to this story)
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