The US is bracing itself for a series of investigations that could see top officials from the administration of former US president George W. Bush hauled in front of Congress, grilled by a special prosecutor and possibly facing criminal charges.
Several investigations will now cast a spotlight on Bush-era torture policy and a secret CIA assassination program, examining the role played by big names such as former US vice president Dick Cheney and former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
In one investigation into the controversial firing of federal prosecutors, Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, has already been forced to appear before Congress and give testimony behind closed doors. Another investigation by the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee has already asked for documents from the CIA and has now announced that it will examine the legality of keeping a secret CIA hit squad hidden from Congress, something alleged to have been ordered by Cheney himself.
“I intend to make this investigation fair and thorough,” said the committee’s chairman, Texas congressman Silvestre Reyes late on Friday night.
The moves reveal a long-awaited desire by elements of the administration of US President Barack Obama and Democrat-controlled Congress to examine alleged abuses of power by Bush officials. They also raise the prospect of a bitter political fight with Republicans, who are likely to portray any attempt to investigate leading Bushites as a witch-hunt.
The inquiries also seem to go against the wishes of some in the White House, including Obama. The president has said he does not want to be distracted by the past and instead intends to focus on economic recovery and healthcare reform.
“The White House is more in the mood for going forward on the issues, such as healthcare, by which they want to define their presidency,” said Gary Schmitt, a former intelligence official under Ronald Reagan and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.
But Obama may not have too much say in what could be the most explosive investigation — one set to be launched by Attorney-General Eric Holder. Holder is mulling whether to appoint a special prosecutor to examine CIA activities since 2001, focusing on the use of torture in interrogation of terror suspects. Any such prosecutor could have the power to bring criminal charges.
Obama has made clear that the final decision is Holder’s alone and news reports last week indicated that Holder was “leaning” toward making such a move. The prosecutor’s mandate could be narrowly focused on minor officials or broaden to reach the top levels of Bush’s Cabinet.
Holder’s decision will be influenced by the results of numerous reports on his desk. One, a survey on interrogation techniques carried out by the CIA’s inspector-general is due to be made public at the end of this month. Holder spent two days reading the report and friends have said he was “shocked and saddened” by its contents.
Another report to be released in the next two months is being compiled about top officials in the US Justice Department who drew up legal advice that justified the new interrogation techniques. That probe focuses on John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general and Jay Bybee, a federal judge.
Many insiders think public reaction to those two reports is likely to ensure Holder eventually appoints a special prosecutor, similar to Kenneth Starr, who investigated former US president Bill Clinton’s affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“I think it is likely that Holder will do that,” said Larry Johnson, a former senior CIA official.
At the same time, other senior politicians in Congress are investigating the CIA’s activities in the Bush era, especially allegations that it kept hidden a secret assassination squad aimed at top al-Qaeda figures.
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