Since its earliest days in office, the Obama administration has found itself caught in a heated debate over Bush administration antiterrorism policies. On one side, civil libertarians and human rights activists are pushing for a close examination of the legality of Bush policies with an eye toward potential high-level prosecutions. On the other side, members of the intelligence community are warning of the dangers to national security of a "witch hunt" that could decimate and demoralize those on the front lines of the fight against Al Qaeda.
President Obama has tried to avoid a showdown on the issue, suggesting that the Bush policies are a thing of the past. The White House sought to project that posture again on Monday.
"The president has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back," according to a White House statement issued Monday. "Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the attorney general."
Mr. Durham is already at work investigating the destruction of CIA videotapes of detainee interrogations. The videotape destruction investigation involves significant overlap of information with the new probe because they apparently involve some of the same interrogations. Holder said he was expanding Durham's mandate beyond the videotapes issue to include an examination of interrogations and detainee treatment.
Durham is specifically instructed to conduct a preliminary review and then present Holder with a recommendation of whether to proceed with a full investigation or drop the matter.
It appears that Durham's investigative mandate is narrow. The investigation apparently will not examine the role of senior administration officials and their legal advisers. Instead, the preliminary probe appears aimed at US officials and contractors who used harsh and brutal tactics that went far beyond those authorized in the Bush administration's so-called torture memos.