The White House’s smoothly run message-making machinery broke down last week in contradictory statements that have reignited the terrorist-interrogation controversy.
In the space of a week, the West Wing turned into a Tower of Babel as administration officials from President Obama to his chief of staff to his national intelligence adviser delivered wildly different positions.
At the core of their disagreements was the issue of whether to pursue legal action against Bush administration officials who gave the go-ahead to the CIA to conduct carefully “enhanced interrogation techniques” on high-value terrorist prisoners.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Obama signed an executive order to ban such practices. But he showed little appetite for a long, drawn-out investigation and prosecution of past officials who either approved of the techniques or carried them out.
Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, thought he was delivering the administration’s position when he went on ABC’s “This Week” and said the president had no interest in pursuing prosecutions. Mr. Obama wants to move forward and not look backward, Mr. Emanuel said.
By midweek, however, Mr. Obama made a stunning 180-degree turn, declining to rule out prosecution of Bush administration officials who had authorized the kind of interrogation practices that have kept us safe since Sept. 11, 2001.
The week before, he released a statement leaving open the potential for legal actions, but he had not spoken about the issue directly.
Then he went to the CIA last week to make clear that he had no intention of punishing anyone in the agency for following the guidelines approved by the Bush administration’s Justice Department.
“For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions of guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it’s appropriate for them to be prosecuted,” he told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
“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 added.
Clearly, Mr. Obama’s decision to change the agreed-upon message in midrollout was in response to political pressure from his party’s left-wing base, particularly the radical MoveOn.org, which wants to conduct a full-blown prosecutorial investigation and kangaroo-court hearings and indictments. He had tossed the ball into Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s court, a long-established procedure known as passing the buck.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama suggested he preferred an independent truth commission to a full-scale congressional investigation, then backed away from that in a Thursday meeting with congressional leaders, saying the idea was unworkable because of the fierce political storm the issue has spawned.
But there was yet another contradictory message from Mr. Obama’s inner circle that became public Wednesday. This one was from Adm. Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence, who directly challenged Mr. Obama’s view that the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques “did not make us safer.”
Not so, Adm. Blair said in a memorandum to intelligence officials. “High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country,” he wrote.
Adm. Blair’s memo went out the same day Mr. Obama released classified Bush administration memos that authorized the interrogation tactics - such as sleep deprivation - that Mr. Obama has since banned.