WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday left the door open to creating a bipartisan commission that would investigate the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects, and did not rule out action by the Justice Department against those who fashioned the legal rationale for those techniques.
The remarks, in response to questions from reporters in the Oval Office, amounted to a shift for the White House. The president had repeatedly said that the nation should look forward rather than focusing on the past, and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said Sunday in a television interview that Obama believed that "those who devised policy" should not be prosecuted.
But under pressure from congressional Democrats and human rights organizations to investigate, the president suggested Tuesday that he would not stand in the way of a full inquiry into what he has called "a dark and painful chapter" in the nation's history.
Obama said he was not suggesting that a commission be established. But he also sketched out the parameters for a panel that would look much like the one that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that "if and when there needs to be a further accounting," he hoped Congress would examine ways to conduct it in a nonpartisan fashion. Some Democrats are pushing similar proposals on Capitol Hill.
The president restated his opposition to prosecuting CIA operatives who followed the Bush administration's legal guidelines in conducting interrogations. But as for lawyers or others who drew up the policies allowing techniques he has banned, Obama said it would be up to his attorney general, Eric Holder, to decide what to do. "I don't want to prejudge that," Obama said.
The comments knocked the ordinarily smooth White House press operation back on its heels. Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, spent much of his daily briefing on Tuesday trying to explain precisely what Obama had meant, declaring at one point, "To clear up any confusion on anything that might have been said, I would point you to what the president said."
The president's comments provided a glimpse into the White House's struggle to deal with one of the thorniest issues that Obama has faced since taking office. He has been assailed from all sides for his decision to release previously secret memorandums detailing the harsh tactics employed by the CIA under President George W. Bush — memos that revealed, for instance, that two captured al-Qaida operatives were subjected to a form of near-drowning known as water-boarding a total of 266 times.
In an indication of the crosscurrents Obama has faced in dealing with the issue, his own national intelligence director privately told his work force last week that the now-banned interrogation methods had indeed produced valuable information — contrary to the White House view that they were not effective.
"High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaida organization that was attacking this country," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff on April 16 as the secret memos were publicly released. A condensed version of the Blair memo was distributed to the media that day without that line.
The private memo, provided to the New York Times on Tuesday by a critic of Obama's policy, provides fodder for Bush administration veterans, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who have argued that the harsh methods helped prevent terrorist attacks.
The debate promises to escalate in the days ahead. The three Bush administration lawyers who signed the interrogation memos, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, are the subject of a coming Justice Department report that officials say is critical of their work. The ethics office has the power to recommend disbarment or other professional penalties or, less likely, to refer cases for criminal prosecution.
Obama was not specific in discussion what course of action, if any, the attorney general might take, saying only, "I think that there are a host of very complicated issues here."