President Obama stepped into a political minefield this week when he suggested that former Bush administration officials might be prosecuted for authorizing harsh interrogation techniques that some people consider torture.
Liberal critics of those tactics are clamoring for a special prosecutor, while conservative defenders accuse the Obama administration of undermining national security.
It's just the kind of partisan bickering the president says he was hoping to avoid.
"As a general deal, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively," Obama said.
Obama has reassured CIA officers that they will not be prosecuted for following Bush administration guidelines, saying this is a time for "reflection, not retribution." But the liberal group MoveOn.org is less forgiving. The group quickly began circulating a petition, demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor.
"If you torture an individual detainee, you might go to jail. But if you authorize an entire secret torture program, you get off scot-free?" MoveOn asks in a new Web video. "America is better than this."
On Tuesday, Obama took a half-step back from his no retribution pledge and said he would leave it up to his attorney general to decide how to handle the officials who crafted those guidelines.
"I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there," Obama said.
That's an understatement. By leaving the door open to prosecution, the president poured gasoline on the political fire.
"This is a story that might have been a two- or three- or four-day story that's now going to be a story for weeks or months," said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Indeed, conservatives have seized on the issue as a way to regain the initiative. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for releasing the torture memos. And Cheney has called for the release of other classified documents, arguing they would show that the interrogation tactics paid off.
The Obama administration has not been shy about challenging Cheney, even though a new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly half of all Americans believe torture is sometimes or often justified.
"I don't think you have anybody in the White House upset about having a dispute with Vice President Cheney, any more than they were upset about having a dispute with Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity," Ornstein said. "If the face of the Republican Party looking forward is Cheney or Limbaugh, if what you've got is a debate over whether we're for or against torture, that's not a problem for the White House in political terms."
A potential problem for the White House would be that Congress gets completely sidetracked by the interrogation program and loses sight of the president's priorities.
"There are things that can happen where minor statements or stumbles dominate the discussion for weeks at a time, and you lose your control of the bully pulpit," Ornstein said.
In a recent survey, MoveOn members ranked universal health care, economic recovery and improving schools all as higher priorities than holding the Bush administration accountable. But Executive Director Justin Ruben says that so far, 150,000 members have signed the MoveOn petition calling for a special prosecutor.
"We think there needs to be a full investigation into the torture program and that we need to ultimately hold the architects accountable, fundamentally because that's the only way we can make sure this doesn't happen again," Ruben said. "This administration has shown they can walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to move forward with health care and clean energy and job creation. But at the same time, we also need to understand what happened with torture, and we can do both."
Maybe so. But a rueful White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that if the president was worried about sparking a political free-for-all, the events of this week have proven him right.