President Obama for the first time Tuesday opened the door to prosecuting former Bush administration officials, saying those who approved harsh interrogation techniques for suspected terrorists may be subject to criminal charges.
The president also left open the possibility for an independent commission to examine the interrogations of detainees with techniques that included waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other tactics that defenders said produced valuable information.
The remarks were a reversal from several days ago, when Mr. Obama said he wanted to move forward and his chief of staff appeared to rule out any prosecutions. The president took a harder line after a key congressional committee chairman and liberal pressure groups urged him not to take prosecutions off the table.
Now, Mr. Obama has shifted responsibility for the decision to his Justice Department, saying that although CIA interrogators will be immune from prosecution, the authors of the interrogation policies may still be in trouble.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t want to prejudge that.”
The Obama administration’s top intelligence official said “high-value information” was obtained in interrogations that included the harsh methods approved by President George W. Bush.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair made the assertion in a memo dated Thursday that was intended for employees of the intelligence community. Mr. Blair’s spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Critics of the harsh methods have called them torture. Mr. Obama has said these methods will no longer be used but has not said whether they worked. In his memo, Mr. Blair wrote that “high-value information came from interrogations” and said they provided a better understanding of the al Qaeda terrorist network.
On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC’s “This Week” program that neither interrogators nor those “who devised policy” would be prosecuted. He said the president was focused on looking forward, not backward.
But liberal groups criticized Mr. Obama, and the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, wrote a letter Monday urging him not to rule anything in or out until after her committee finishes its own investigation.
Mr. Obama also left the door open to a Sept. 11-commission-style investigation into interrogation techniques - something for which some members of Congress have been pushing. Mr. Obama said “if and when” a review happens, it must be independent of Congress to avoid politicization.
“This is in line with what I have proposed through an independent Commission of Inquiry,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “Unfortunately, Republicans have shown no interest in a nonpartisan review. Nonetheless, the consensus to review these policies is growing, and I will continue to develop this proposal.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denied a change in position. When asked about the difference between Mr. Obama’s remarks and Mr. Emanuel’s comments, Mr. Gibbs told reporters to heed the president.
He also said it will be up to the attorney general how high prosecutions would go, leaving open the potential of charges against former Cabinet-level officials or those in the Bush White House.
One of the architects of the Bush policies, former Vice President Dick Cheney, said this week that Mr. Obama made a mistake in releasing the four memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. But Mr. Cheney told Fox News that since he’s released those memos, Mr. Obama should also release classified information that would show the enhanced techniques were successful.
The nation’s intelligence services have said they received valuable information by using the techniques, but the White House would not comment on that assertion.
Mr. Obama halted the enhanced interrogation techniques earlier in his young administration, and on Tuesday he said the memos allowing those tactics “reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings.”
Those who had pushed the president for prosecutions considered his change in position a victory.
“Today’s response does indicate that he’s sensitive to pressure,” said Faiz Shakir, research director at the Center for American Progress and founder of the liberal think tank’s blog, ThinkProgress.org. “The reason why those of us who did press the president are satisfied with what he said is because he indicated his inclination to do what is right rather than box himself into a corner and stick to his guns like President Bush would have done.”
Mrs. Feinstein said her committee is conducting a bipartisan review of detention and interrogation, and that it will be completed in six to eight months. “Then, I think, as people look at this classified report, they can make up their own mind,” she said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill said Mr. Obama is breaking his vow not to pursue recrimination against Mr. Bush and his team.
“The president made a big deal after coming to office about looking forward and not backward. And I wish there was as much focus in this administration on policies that will keep us safe here in the United States,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “I think it’s important to remember, from 9/11 until the end of the Bush administration, not another single attack on the U.S. homeland. We were obviously doing something right.”
• Jon Ward contributed to this report.