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White House opposes special commission

David Espo

The Obama administration struggled to quell persistent Democratic demands for a potentially explosive probe of harsh Bush administration detainee interrogations Thursday, abruptly declaring opposition to an independent commission. Republicans stepped up their own criticism of Barack Obama's handling of the sensitive issue.

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs sought to underscore Obama's resistance to an independent commission two days after the president himself said such an approach would be preferable to a partisan congressional investigation into the questioning techniques that critics say amount to torture.

Gibbs said that after internal White House debate, Obama determined the independent commission "concept didn't seem altogether that workable in this case."

House Republican leader John Boehner, meanwhile, appeared to raise the stakes in a meeting at the White House, urging the president to release internal CIA and other memos evaluating whether waterboarding and other harsh "enhanced" techniques had succeeded in gaining valuable information. Obama made no commitment, according to officials briefed on the session.

At the Capitol, Boehner said Obama's release last week of Bush-era memos outlining the legal case for waterboarding and other techniques marked "the latest example of the administration's disarray when it comes to national security."

He said their disclosure "provides a chilling effect on our intelligence officers all around the world." He also said additional details, already made public, show that members of both houses of Congress and both parties were briefed by the CIA when waterboarding was used on prisoners captured in the anti-terror war. "And not a word was raised at that time, not one word," Boehner said.

While Obama has been critical of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, he has not said whether he believes they were successful in obtaining useful information.

But Dennis Blair, the administration's director of national intelligence, said in a memo circulated to employees last week that "high value" information had been obtained through the use.

The controversy has flared at an inopportune time for Obama, approaching the 100-day milestone of an administration focused day and night so far on efforts to grapple with the weak economy — efforts that polls show the country generally approves.

Any public investigation would present Republicans and Democrats alike with the possibility that events could take years to sort out, pose complicated legal and constitutional issues and potentially spiral out of their control.

Gibbs' remarks left the fate of calls for a so-called Truth Commission in doubt. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for creation of such as group. If it were to have the power to issue subpoenas, legislation would be required. That, in turn, would require Republican support in the Senate as well as presidential approval.

Despite Leahy's persistent calls for an outside investigation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters that the Senate Intelligence Committee should be allowed to complete an investigation it has already embarked upon before other decisions are made.

"We're talking about more than waterboarding. ... It would be very unwise from my perspective to start having commissions, boards, tribunals before we know what the facts are," he said.

Across the Capitol, officials said the House Intelligence Committee has scheduled a closed-door hearing for next week on human intelligence, a meeting that could easily veer into the controversy now unfolding.

Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reaffirmed her support for a truth commission such as Leahy favors "because I think this is very important." The question, she said, is whether there should be immunity from prosecution for testimony before such a commission.

Among those who could face the most scrutiny is Jay Bybee, who worked in the Justice Department's Office Legal Counsel during the Bush administration, signed off on four memos released this week, and is now a federal appeals court judge. The Senate confirmed him in 2003 on a vote of 74-19.

Common Cause called earlier this week for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Bybee. Leahy, in remarks on the Senate floor earlier this week, said he hoped the judge "will do the honest thing, the moral thing, the right thing, and resign from the bench."

Pelosi herself became the focus of controversy during the day, following comments by Boehner and others that Democrats had been briefed on the CIA's use of waterboarding.

A timeline released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday said the CIA had told key members of the Senate intelligence panel in the fall of 2002 that waterboarding had been used on three detainees, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashir, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But Pelosi said she had not been briefed at the time. "We were not — I repeat — were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used." She added that she had been told there was a legal memo that said they could be used, but not that they had.

Pelosi was replaced as senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee in the fall of 2002 by Rep. Jane Harman, another California Democrat.

Pelosi's office referred reporters to a statement she had issued in 2007 saying that Harman "was briefed more extensively and advised the techniques had in fact been employed."

At the time, Harman wrote a letter — now public — to the CIA saying that the techniques described raised "profound policy questions."


Associated Press Writers Jim Abrams, Pamela Hess, Laurie Kellman and Jennifer Loven contributed to this story.

The Associated Press