Barack Obama today offered what might be the single most mealy-mouthed, non-committal, responsibility-dodging answer in presidential history, when asked his views on prosecution of those who oversaw terrorist interrogation under the Bush administration:
While the Bush-era memos providing legal justifications for enhanced interrogation methods "reflected us losing our moral bearings," the president said, he also that he did not think it was "appropriate" to prosecute those CIA officers who "carried out some of these operations within the four corners of the legal opinions or guidance that had been provided by the White House."
But in clear change from language he and members of his administration have used in the past, the president said that "with respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say 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. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there..."
Mr. Obama also today said that if there is any sort of commission or investigation into the approval and use of these interrogation methods, he would prefer that it be an independent bipartisan commission and not a congressional hearing, though he was clear to state that he was not expressing an opinion on whether should there be hearings.
"If and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period," the president said, "I think for Congress to examine ways in which it can be done in a bipartisan fashion --outside of the typical hearing progress that can sometimes break down and break entirely along party lines, to accept that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility -- I think that would be a more sensible approach."
The president said that he's "not suggesting that should be done but I’m saying that if you’ve got a choice, I think it’s very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or the other political advantage, but rather it’s being done in order to learn some lessons so that we can move forward in an effective way."
Mr. Obama also stated his "general view," that "we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we can not function effectively and it hampers ability our ability to carry out critical national security operations."
During his February 9 prime time press conference, the president was asked about a proposal by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to "set up a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration."
Mr. Obama then said that he hadn't seen the proposal in question, but that his administration would "operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torturem" and "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing...people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen."
However, the president said, "generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the -- all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America, and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information... My general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward."
Do we choose presidents on the basis of their ability to dodge tough questions? Obama clearly thinks so. It seems that going back months, every time Barack Obama gets asked about this, he prattles on about a desire 'to look forward, not backward.' While that's not an answer, at least it seems similar to 'no.' So what happened today? Did the teleprompter betray him?
What makes this even more embarrassing is that Obama cannot claim - as he did today - a desire to avoid 'prejudging' the issue. By his own statement and by those of his White House staff, he has spent weeks delving into this issue at length. As the New York Times reports today:
Aides said Mr. Obama struggled for four weeks about whether to release the memos in response to a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act, consulting with advisers, experts and intelligence professionals. It was on his mind so much, they said, that he talked about it with aides late at night in his hotel room during stops on his recent European trip.
In meetings, they said, he served as “the interrogator,” as one put it, challenging people to defend their views. Advisers diverged, with some like Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. favoring the release of more information and others like Leon E. Panetta, the new C.I.A. director, urging that more be withheld. Aides said Mr. Obama worried about damaging morale at the C.I.A. and his own relationship with the agency.
You cannot 'prejudge' an issue you have been considering at length for weeks. Or is Obama suggesting that he released these sensitive interrogation documents without seriously considering the question?
How is it possible that after this level of scrutiny of the issue, Barack Obama has no opinion on whether further investigation is needed? Surely when a brilliant Constitutional law professor spends a month consumed by the question of how we handle terrorist interrogation - discussing it with each of the main officials charged with oversight - he develops some opinion on it. Most Americans have a view on whether an investigation is warranted; they have spent very little time on the subject. Yet Barack Obama wants us to believe he is purely agnostic on the question? This is nonsense, and it insults the intelligence of the American people.
Mr. Obama, you are the Decider. Please start acting like you realize that.