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Barack Obama, facing perhaps the trickiest political issue of his young presidency, is trying to appease his liberal base without losing control of a potentially volatile inquiry into George W. Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation tactics against terrorism suspects.
One step to the left or right could land him in political trouble.
If Obama seems inclined to stifle an investigation and possible prosecution of Bush administration officials who approved rough interrogations by the CIA, he may infuriate liberal activists who were crucial to his election. But if Democratic lawmakers appear too zealous in pursuing departed GOP government officials, they might be portrayed as vindictive and backward-looking, undermining Obama’s image as a forward-looking figure of hope and progress.
While Obama struggles to calibrate the matter, Republicans sense a possible gap in his armor.
In the past few days, the White House signaled that it would not try to prosecute Bush administration lawyers who had justified the interrogation tactics, which Obama has likened to torture. Later, Obama said the attorney general would make such decisions.
On Tuesday, Obama said he wanted to look forward, not back, but he would prefer an independent commission to a completely congressional investigation if a full-blown inquiry is pursued. On Thursday, his press secretary suggested Obama does not care for an independent panel.
The absence of such a commission could leave hearings totally in the hands of House and Senate committees, which are controlled by Democrats. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, has an especially large number of sharply partisan Democrats and Republicans, who could produce televised fireworks and unpredictable results.
Terry Holt is among the Republican strategists who think Obama and his allies will suffer because the scenario is apt to look more like a witch hunt than a sober search for justice.
"It would be a total circus and be complete chaos and expose them to terrible risk," Holt said. "Obama’s political strength is based on the notion that he is the future, moving forward. I felt Obama’s first instinct was the correct one: to let this stuff go."
But liberal groups, blogs and Web sites are afire with calls for full-bore inquiries and possible prosecutions of the lawyers and officials who justified the tactics. Those tactics included 11 days of sleep deprivation for some detainees and repeated waterboarding, an ordeal that simulates drowning.
Recently released memos from the Justice Department "provide shocking confirmation of high-level involvement in the sadistic interrogation methods the Bush administration authorized the CIA to use on detainees," the American Civil Liberties Union says on its Web site. "It is indefensible to avoid investigating and prosecuting those responsible for these heinous crimes."
Liberal talk show host Ed Schultz said this week on MSNBC that many liberal Democrats "want to see prosecution. Does the president just ignore them?"
After 2,000 viewers texted their opinions, Schultz said, "Ninety-four percent want to see Bush officials prosecuted."
The White House is walking a careful line. On one hand, Obama cannot spurn his liberal backers too often, and he already has disappointed them on issues such as taxing the rich, controlling greenhouse gas emissions and cracking down on domestic surveillance.
But the president cannot afford to let Republican strategists portray the CIA interrogations matter as a case of Democratic overreaching, perhaps comparable to the GOP’s strategic overreach in impeaching then-President Bill Clinton.
Matt Bennett, vice president of the moderate-Democratic group Third Way, said the potentially unconstitutional actions of the Bush administration officials require looking into. But he’s wary of a potentially partisan food fight if congressional committees alone conduct the investigations.
"If this were to proceed," Bennett said, "the best model is the 9/11 Commission, with unquestionably responsible leaders, like Lee Hamilton." Hamilton, a former Democratic lawmaker from Indiana, co-chaired the highly regarded commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs seemed to throw cold water on the independent commission idea Thursday. That leaves Congress and the White House with an unclear path on how to pursue a combustible question.
Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.