WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder is leaning toward appointing a criminal prosecutor to investigate whether CIA personnel tortured terrorism suspects after Sept. 11, 2001, setting the stage for a conflict with administration officials who would prefer the issues remain in the past, according to three sources familiar with his thinking.
Naming a prosecutor to investigate alleged abuses during the darkest period in the Bush era would run counter to President Barack Obama's oft-repeated desire to be "looking forward, not backwards." Top political aides have expressed concern such an investigation might spawn partisan debates that could overtake Obama's ambitious legislative agenda.
The White House successfully resisted efforts by congressional Democrats to establish a "truth and reconciliation" panel. But fresh disclosures have continued to emerge about detainee mistreatment, including a secret CIA watchdog report, recently reviewed by Holder, highlighting several episodes that could be likened to torture.
Holder's decision could come within weeks, around the same time the Justice Department releases an ethics report about Bush lawyers who drafted memos supporting harsh interrogation practices, the sources said.
The legal documents spell out in sometimes painstaking detail how interrogators were allowed to subject detainees to simulated drowning, sleep deprivation, wall slamming and confinement in small, dark spaces.
Any criminal inquiry could face challenges, including potent legal defenses by CIA employees who could argue that attorneys in the Bush Justice Department authorized a wide range of harsh conduct. But the sources said an inquiry would apply only to activities by interrogators, working in bad faith, that fell outside the legal memos.
Some incidents that might go beyond interrogation techniques that were permitted involve detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are described in the secret 2004 CIA inspector general report, set for release Aug. 31.
Among the unauthorized techniques allegedly used, as described in the report and in Red Cross accounts, were shackling, punching and beating of suspects, as well as the waterboarding of at least two detainees using more liquid and for longer periods than the Justice Department had approved. That conduct could violate ordinary criminal laws, as well as the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the United States signed more than a decade ago.