Torture investigation

TORTURE INVESTIGATION…. Following up on Hilzoy’s overnight item, there’s been quite a bit of talk over the last 12 hours over the possibility of the Justice Department launching some kind of probe of Bush-era torture policies. If this is a trial balloon, Attorney General Eric Holder is pushing it very high so it can be easily seen.

Newsweek got the ball rolling with this report, published online late yesterday.

Holder … may be on the verge of asserting his independence in a profound way. Four knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration’s brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter.

Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama’s domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform.

This was followed soon after by reports in the AP, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, suggesting there’s an effort on the part of DOJ officials to get the prospect of an investigation out into public view, just in time for the Sunday papers and morning talk shows.

The Post‘s report offers the most detail about the kind of investigation we might expect to see, though it appears a decision is not yet imminent. The article noted, in particular, that sources said “an inquiry would apply only to activities by interrogators, working in bad faith, that fell outside the ‘four corners’ of the legal memos.” In other words, Cheney and his team would not be at the center of any probe.

Marc Ambinder had a good item about the politics of this.

Appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Bush-era policies of any sort is fraught with risk, even exempting the public and political ramifications. Investigations like these have a way of snowballing. The intelligence community will strenuously reject and resist; there are very legitimate concerns about the integrity of classified information.

If Holder decides to go ahead, he may not entirely satisfy critics of the Bush-era policies; a special prosecutor might not be given a mandate to investigate more than a handful of compartmented programs. […]

Since the beginning of his presidential transition, Obama has been counseled by his attorneys that any such investigation is likely to be incomplete, resulting in people being charged with sins they participated it but did not originate. Even senior Justice Department officials admit that the possibility of an elected White House decision-maker like the Vice President being charged with a crime is remote. Obama would rather not see middle managers prosecuted for decisions, or crimes, of elected officials or senior political appointees. And he is very concerned with precedent. But this will not be his decision to make.

Expect some kind of decision over the next several weeks.