President Obama said Tuesday that Justice Department officials who authorized harsh interrogation techniques are not immune from prosecution. That's different from the message his chief of staff gave over the weekend.
On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that Obama does not want to prosecute Justice Department lawyers who gave the green light to what Obama has described as torture.
"Those who devised the policy, he believes, should not be prosecuted," Emanuel said.
Two days later, Obama shifted course. "With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions," he said, "that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that."
Obama also said he could support a bipartisan inquiry into Bush-era detention policies.
Later in the day, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs underscored the shift. Gibbs said during a White House briefing, "the president stated accurately that any determination as to whether a law was broken would rightly be made not by the president but by the chief law enforcement officer of the United States."
Attorney General Eric Holder had no comment. There is a Justice Department investigation into whether department lawyers who wrote the interrogation memos violated professional guidelines. Holder may be waiting to see that report before he makes a decision on prosecutions.
Since last week, the administration has consistently said CIA officials won't be prosecuted for following Justice Department legal guidance in good faith. That language leaves out at least three groups:
- CIA officials who conducted harsh interrogations before the Justice Department provided legal guidance.
- CIA officials who went beyond what the Justice Department said was legal.
- Justice Department officials who provided legal guidance endorsing harsh interrogations.
One such Justice official is now a federal appeals court judge in California with life tenure. President Bush nominated Jay Bybee to the bench when the memos Bybee wrote were still classified. Bybee was not asked about the memos at his confirmation hearing, and he has never publicly answered questions about them.
On Tuesday, a coalition of liberal and human rights activists asked the House Judiciary Committee to look into impeaching Bybee. A spokesman for committee Chairman John Conyers said Conyers is more interested in a full investigation of Bush administration wrongdoings.