WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders, joining forces with the Obama White House, said they would resist efforts by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democrats to create a special commission to investigate the harsh interrogation methods that the Bush administration approved for terrorism suspects.
At a meeting of top Democrats at the White House Wednesday night, President Barack Obama told congressional leaders that he did not want a special inquiry, which he said would potentially steal time and energy from his ambitious policy priorities, and could mushroom into a wider distraction by looking back at other aspects of the Bush years.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and other top Senate Democrats endorsed Obama's view on Thursday, saying they preferred to wait for the results of an investigation by the Senate intelligence committee expected sometime "late this year."
Reid, who repeatedly denounced the use of harsh interrogation techniques when George W. Bush was president, suggested that naming a special panel would signal an intent to exact "retribution," and he sought to paper over the disagreement with members of his own caucus, like Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who want a commission.
"I don't think there is a division among Democrats," Reid said. "Justice must be served. Retribution should not be a part of what we're talking about." He said it was premature to act without facts to be provided by the intelligence committee.
But Pelosi reiterated her position — shared by many of the more liberal Democrats in the House — that a panel should be named to investigate the Bush administration legal memos that allowed waterboarding and other harsh techniques.
The division between top Democrats threatened to open up a debate that would distract from Obama's agenda.
House Republican leader John Boehner appeared to raise the stakes in a meeting at the White House, urging the president to release internal CIA and other memos evaluating whether waterboarding and other harsh "enhanced" techniques had succeeded in gaining valuable information. Obama made no commitment, according to officials briefed on the session.
Boehner said Obama's release last week of Bush-era memos outlining the legal case for waterboarding and other techniques marked "the latest example of the administration's disarray when it comes to national security."
He said their disclosure "provides a chilling effect on our intelligence officers all around the world." He said additional details, already made public, show that members of both houses of Congress and both parties were briefed by the CIA when waterboarding was used on prisoners captured in the antiterror war.
"And not a word was raised at that time, not one word," Boehner said.
While Obama has been critical of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, he has not said whether he believes they were successful in obtaining useful information.
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.