WASHINGTON - A debate over how to investigate Bush-era officials who authorized harsh interrogation tactics of terrorism suspects split Washington on Thursday, and Democrats squabbled over how to proceed.
The top Democrats in Congress differed over the creation of a special "truth commission" to investigate whether laws were violated by Bush administration officials whose legal analysis sanctioned waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, and other methods such as sleep deprivation and forced nudity.
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for creation of such a commission, her Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid, declined to endorse it.
Reid said the Senate intelligence committee should complete its own closed-door inquiry, which could take up to a year. "I believe what we have to do is wait until the intelligence committee finishes its work," Reid told the Las Vegas Sun.
The White House did not sound enthusiastic about a special commission. "I think the last few days might well be evidence of why something like this would likely just become a political back-and-forth," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
President Barack Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, said he would not allow "criminalization" of policy differences over CIA interrogations.
"However, it is my responsibility as the attorney general to enforce the law," Holder told a congressional hearing. "If I see wrongdoing, I will pursue it to the full extent of the law."
The Democratic U.S. president on Tuesday opened the door to the possible prosecution of officials from the Republican Bush administration. Obama's comments intensified a political firestorm that erupted last week when he released previously top-secret Bush-era memos that provided legal justification for various interrogation techniques.
After the White House first said it wanted to look forward and not review the past, Obama raised the possibility that a bipartisan panel could look at the matter and said it would be up to the Justice Department to decide whether anyone from former President George W. Bush's administration should be prosecuted.
Comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration, suggested there was a split among Obama's inner circle about releasing the memos.
Gates said in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that he was concerned the release of the documents could lead to a backlash against U.S. interests overseas, but that the disclosures were inevitable.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
"There was the realization in the discussions that some of these disclosures could be used by al Qaeda and our adversaries," Gates said.
PRESSURE TO TAKE ACTION
Democrats are being driven by pressure from their left wing to take action against Bush administration officials, saying Bush allowed interrogation techniques that amounted to torture and someone should be held responsible.
Republicans, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, have argued the tactics led to intelligence breakthroughs that saved U.S. lives, and accused Democrats of seeking to criminalize what amounts to a policy disagreement.
"The president made a big deal, after coming to office, about looking forward and not looking backward. And I wish there were as much focus in this administration on policies that will keep us safe here in the United States," said the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell.
Finger-pointing was taking place over who knew about the interrogation techniques when, given that the Bush administration briefed congressional leaders about its efforts to prevent a repeat of the September 11 attacks.
Pelosi, asked about a classified briefing she received in 2002 from the Bush administration on interrogation techniques, said she was never told waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques were being used.
"We were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used. What they did tell us was that they had some ... (legal) opinions that they could be used," she told a news conference.
But the top Republican in the House, John Boehner of Ohio, told reporters he had seen a partial list of Democrats and Republicans who were briefed on the aggressive interrogation techniques "and not a word was raised about it at the time."
Asked if Pelosi was one of them, he said she and others had been "fully briefed" on the techniques.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell; writing by Steve Holland; editing by Will Dunham)