Probe Begins Into Whether CIA Abused Detainees

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that he appointed a veteran prosecutor to lead a review into possible abuse of detainees by the CIA. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham will determine if any CIA officers or contractors should face criminal charges. Holder said he realized that his decision would be controversial, and he was right.

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Now the decision to appoint a prosecutor to examine the interrogations has generated intense discussion, not all of it favorable, to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Here's NPR's Justice correspondent Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: The attorney general knew what he was getting into. In his statement announcing this investigation, he said I fully realize that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial. Partisans on both sides of the aisle immediately took up their battle stations. The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, said in a statement - it demonstrates independence that was lacking in the Justice Department during the last administration.

The top Republican in the House Intelligence Committee, Pete Hoekstra, said in a statement - Holder is distracting from the CIA's current counter terrorism efforts. But the controversy over investigating torture is not purely partisan.

Mr. JEFFREY SMITH (General Counsel, CIA, 1990s): You know, I am a Democrat and strongly support this president, but I just think it's very tricky to prosecute career officers for things that occurred in a previous administration.

SHAPIRO: Jeffrey Smith was general counsel of the CIA in the mid 90s.

Mr. SMITH: The Justice Department previously looked at these cases and decided, for a variety of reasons, not to prosecute. And my view is that there should be a very high burden that the administration needs to meet in order to reopen these cases.

SHAPIRO: Even President Obama, who appointed the attorney general, did not exactly rush to his friend's defense. Spokesman Bill Burton spoke with reporters on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where the president is on vacation.

Mr. BILL BURTON (Spokesman, White House): Well, as the president has said, repeatedly, he thinks that we should be looking forward not backward. He does agree with the attorney general that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned should not be prosecuted.

SHAPIRO: But as to whether people who went beyond the Justice Department's legal guidance should be prosecuted, Burton said…

Mr. BURTON: The president thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent attorney general, should make those decisions.

SHAPIRO: A spokesman repeated those sentiments in a written statement after Holder publicly announced his decision.

At the CIA, Agency Director Leon Panetta called prisoner abuse an old story. In a letter to employees, he said he's putting his emphasis on the future. But some former members of the intelligence community say this investigation is exactly what the future needs.

Mr. JACK CLOONAN (Former Senior Case Agent, FBI): We do need to send a message: when people violate the law in the name of national security there are consequences.

SHAPIRO: Jack Cloonan interrogated many members of al-Qaida as a senior case agent on the FBI's Bin Laden squad.

Mr. CLOONAN: The fact of the matter is strength comes from sunshine and sunshine needs to be shown on this. We need to be able to show the world, once and for all, when we do make mistakes, we stand up, we admit to them and we put in place policies that will prevent us from ever going through this again.

SHAPIRO: The man Holder asked to lead this investigation is intensely apolitical. John Durham has worked in the Justice Department for decades. President Bush's attorney general, Michael Mukasey, asked Durham to investigate the CIA's destruction of videotapes depicting harsh interrogations. Now, Attorney General Holder has expanded Durham's authority.

His assignment is defined in narrow terms: look into the interrogation of specific detainees in foreign countries, examine the cases where interrogators went beyond guidance from the Justice Department, determine whether a full investigation is warranted, and eventually, contractors or CIA employees who conducted those interrogations could stand trial.

For some, those guidelines are too narrow. Tom Parker of Amnesty International says accountability is meaningless unless it goes all the way to the top.

Mr. TOM PARKER (Amnesty International): President Truman said the buck stops here - he didn't say the buck stops with a master sergeant in Abu Ghraib, he didn't say the buck stops here with a young lieutenant on the frontline. He said it stopped at his desk, 'cause he was - to quote another president - the decider.

SHAPIRO: But, as Parker says, investigations have a habit of uncovering new things.

Mr. PARKER: Just look at the releases we've had in the past 24 hours. We didn't know about mock executions; we didn't know about the use of chokeholds to the point of suffocation; we didn't know about threats to people's family members. This is all new stuff and it's come out because of an investigation that's finally been made public.

SHAPIRO: So, Parker says, it's impossible to know where this latest investigation will end up.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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