WASHINGTON // The decision of the attorney general, Eric Holder, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate cases of alleged torture, and the reigniting of a rancorous debate over how to deal with such allegations, comes at a politically perilous time for Barack Obama, who has repeatedly said he would prefer to focus attention elsewhere. Mr Obama, who is on a weeklong vacation in Massachusetts, is already in the middle of a bitter partisan battle over healthcare reform, an issue that could define his presidency. Meanwhile, conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating and the president's war plan could face stepped-up scrutiny when legislators return to Washington next month.
In a statement on Monday, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, reiterated Mr Obama's desire to avoid a controversy over the previous administration's policies. "The president has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back," Mr Gibbs said, though he added that the decision to investigate torture allegations ultimately rested with the attorney general. Mr Holder announced on Monday the appointment of a veteran US attorney, John Durham, to conduct a "preliminary review" into whether interrogators broke the law when questioning "specific detainees at overseas locations". Legal analysts have interpreted that to mean that the inquiry, for now, will have a narrow scope, focused on low-level officers. But no one has excluded the possibility that the probe could eventually ensnare top-level policymakers from the Bush years, raising the prospect of a prolonged and divisive political fallout.
Mr Holder acknowledged in a statement that his actions would be viewed as "controversial", but said the review is "the only responsible course of action for me to take". He also emphasised that the "preliminary review" does not amount to a "full investigation" and that there was no guarantee that charges would ever be filed. In ordering the review, Mr Holder appears to have staked out the middle ground, somewhere between those on the left who have pushed for a full-scale inquiry and those on the right who have urged the justice department to do nothing. But his decision has only served so far to inflame passions on both sides of the debate.
Russ Feingold, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin who has pushed for a full-scale inquiry, said he worried that Mr Holder's probe would not go far enough. "The abuses that were officially sanctioned amounted to torture and those at the very top who authorised, ordered or sought to provide legal cover for them should be held accountable," he said in a statement. Legal advocacy groups have likewise expressed concerns about the strength of the review. The American Civil Liberties Union called the inquiry "anaemic". Other groups, such as The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents current and former detainees at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, have invoked the government's handling of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which led to the prosecution of some rank-and-file soldiers but not of senior officers.
"Responsibility for the torture programme cannot be laid at the feet of a few low-level operatives," the group said in a statement, adding that the probe should be aimed at "high ranking officials who designed, justified and orchestrated the torture programme". Kenneth Kitts, a professor of political science at Francis Marion University in South Carolina and an expert on presidential commissions, said the fact that the impetus for the investigation emanated from the justice department rather than the White House could afford Mr Obama some "political cover".
But angry Republicans have already seized the opportunity to link Mr Holder's actions to Democrats and frame Mr Dunham's appointment as a partisan act. Kit Bond, a Republican senator from Missouri, decried the "Obama Justice Department" for launching a "witch-hunt targeting the terror-fighters who have kept us safe since 9-11". Mr Bond was among nine Republican senators who sent a letter to Mr Holder last week imploring him not to appoint a special prosecutor.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said Mr Holder's decision was "poor and misguided", noting that the justice department under previous attorneys general had access to the same reports that prompted Mr Holder's inquiry but decided not to pursue one. James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said Republicans would likely continue to use the inquiry to paint the Obama administration as weak on national security and as favouring policies that punish "good, loyal and patriotic Americans who are trying to protect us". Such a line of attack, he said, may also be used to bolster opposition to the president on other policy fronts, including health care.
"That argument is easy to make in a simplistic way," he said. "People may pick it up and that will make it much more difficult for Obama to proceed with the rest of his agenda." firstname.lastname@example.org