WASHINGTON - President Obama left open the possibility yesterday of legal consequences for Bush administration officials who authorized the harsh interrogation techniques that were applied to top terror suspects, saying the attorney general should determine if they broke the law.
Obama also said that if Congress was intent on investigating that interrogation program, an independent commission might be more suitable than a congressional panel, which he said was more likely to split along partisan lines.
Obama's remarks were the first time that he has explicitly raised the prospect of legal jeopardy for those who formulated the interrogation policy, which critics say amounted to authorizing torture.
They also reversed his administration's apparent opposition to prosecuting those officials - a stance taken just Sunday by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
While Obama opposed holding CIA interrogators legally accountable, saying they followed legal opinions and White House guidance, he did not extend that posture to those who created a legal foundation for the policy that allowed the use of harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
"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," he told reporters at the White House.
The president has been under fire from both left and right for his handling of once-classified Office of Legal Counsel memos in which Bush administration officials authorized the interrogation techniques.
Obama banned those methods in the early days of his presidency.
After a lengthy internal debate, Obama released the memos last week, saying CIA employees who operated under their guidance should not face legal consequences.
That position was opposed by some lawmakers and activists who said someone should be held accountable for what they consider torture.
Critics on the right, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, said Obama was jeopardizing national security by releasing the memos. Obama officials have noted that the techniques have been discussed in news reports and even publicly by former President George W. Bush.
That divide remained evident yesterday.
"I am pleased that the president made clear that he has not ruled out investigations or prosecutions of those who authorized torture," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D., Wis.), "or provided the legal justification for it. Horrible abuses were committed in the name of the American people, and we cannot look the other way or just move on."
Some Republicans questioned Obama's move.
"There is a lot of gray, there's going to be an awful lot of conflict out there," said Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.). "They would be well-served not to depart abruptly from the policies that have kept us safe the last seven years."
The idea of a 9/11-style commission appointed with the president's imprimatur was broadly discussed in the weeks leading up to the release of the memos, according to senior White House officials who participated in the discussions.
But the idea was quashed by Obama.
"His whole thing is: I banned all this," a senior White House official said. "This chapter is over. What we don't need now is to become a sort of feeding frenzy where we go back and re-litigate all this."
In the private discussions, Obama acknowledged that Congress might pursue such a course, aides said. But the president was clear: He did not want to put his stamp of approval on a commission.
That, coupled with Emanuel's statement Sunday on ABC's This Week that the president thought those who devised the interrogation policy should not be prosecuted, made Obama's comments yesterday surprising.
Asked whether there was a change in policy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "I don't think so, no."
The Bush Justice Department wrote three of the memos in 2005 in response to a request from John A. Rizzo, senior deputy general counsel at the CIA, who wanted to ensure the agency's interrogation procedures complied with laws and international treaties.
The memos were prepared by Steven Bradbury, who led the department's Office of Legal Counsel.
A fourth memo was drafted with the help of Jay Bybee, who served in the OLC before Bush named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and John Yoo, who became a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and now writes a column for The Inquirer.
Telephone messages left for the three were not immediately returned, and a CIA spokesman said Rizzo declined to comment.