U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says a Justice Department prosecutor will conduct a "preliminary review" of possible criminal cases stemming from CIA interrogations of suspected terrorists.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been pushing for such an investigation. It's waged a five-year legal battle to uncover misconduct in the name of national security.
The ACLU says Holder doesn't need to do the preliminary review — he should just go ahead and prosecute.
"It seems as if he's appeasing the political interests in Washington, not to take this full bore," says Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director. "Frankly, what further proof do we need that the laws were violated?"
It's that kind of language that inflames Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Back in April, Sen. Christopher Bond, a Republican from Missouri, accused President Obama of kowtowing to the ACLU: "It's up to the president to choose our terror fighters over terrorists, to choose troops over ACLU lawyers, to choose national security over politics."
The ACLU has made its reputation on infuriating politicians — usually conservatives, but sometimes liberals.
Romero took the reins at the ACLU a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since then, the issues of detention, surveillance, transparency and torture have dominated the group's agenda. Nearly 40 lawyers and other professionals have been added to the budget.
Laura Murphy was head of the ACLU's Washington office in 2001. She remembers polls showing many Americans ready to give up civil liberties to stay safe.
"There were armed soldiers all over Washington," Murphy says. "You had F-15 and F-16 fighter jets patrolling the skies over Washington, D.C., and New York."
Groups advocating for civil liberties and human rights rallied together. And even in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, they claimed some small victories. One was forcing Congress to pause long enough to hold a single hearing on the Patriot Act, a law that broadened government's surveillance powers.
"We emboldened people to speak up about how torture was outlawed by the Geneva Conventions," Murphy says. "We emboldened them to ask questions of the Department of Homeland Security about their detention practices."
Now the rights groups have a web of alliances — coordinating strategies, and writing supporting briefs for lawsuits against the government.
The ACLU works with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, assisting military attorneys who defend detainees at the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
And in June 2004, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to get documents on American detention and interrogation of prisoners overseas.
That led to a steady drip of revelations, including the CIA inspector general's report from 2004. The report reveals threats against detainees and other possible violations of U.S. law.
But ACLU head Romero says the Obama administration has to confront the legacy of the anti-terrorism policies, how they were formulated and how they were carried out.
"What's clear is this is not going away. Romero says. "And the Obama administration really is rather foolhardy in thinking that perhaps by deferring it, or by taking its sweet old time and having a preliminary investigation, they really are putting their head in the sand."
Among the battles yet to come: The ACLU and others want to shut down the military tribunals at Guantanamo. They also want disclosure of photos depicting interrogation practices in Iraq.