Until last week, President Barack Obama had made it clear he intended to “look forward,” rather than insist on punishment of Bush-era officials who approved harsh interrogation practices.
But a series of missteps by the White House threatened to undermine that decision and stoked the political tempest aides say Mr. Obama had hoped to avoid. The president called the top two Democrats in Congress to the White House for a meeting this week to cool passions, as aides struggled to gain control of the message.
By Friday, Obama administration officials were hoping to contain the furor by limiting the investigation of the Bush administration to two probes already under way: a low-key investigation by a Senate panel and a Justice Department ethics inquiry that officials say isn’t likely to recommend prosecuting anyone.
Aides said that Mr. Obama’s seemingly contradictory remarks were misinterpreted, and that the president’s view had been conveyed poorly. Mr. Obama believed that if he banned “enhanced interrogation techniques” — what many in his administration called torture — he could move beyond the matter, according to aides.
It seemed to work — until this month. The president faced a court-imposed April 16 deadline to decide whether to release four Justice Department memos from 2002 and 2005 that offered the legal grounds for waterboarding detainees and similar harsh treatment. The Obama administration had to release the memos or tell the court why not.
The president convened aides for a meeting that turned to heated debate the night before the deadline, participants say. CIA chief Leon Panetta was among those against a broad release of the memos. Attorney General Eric Holder was in favor.
Mr. Obama sided with Mr. Holder. But he also short-circuited any legal action against Central Intelligence Agency operatives. The next day, he announced he would release the memos mostly unredacted. Mr. Holder also announced he wouldn’t prosecute any of the CIA officers who carried out the Bush policies.
By doing so, Mr. Obama believed he struck a balance between demands of the political left and his own campaign promises on the one hand, and a recognition that “we live in a dangerous world,” on the other, said one senior White House aide.
Another official said the president’s perspective sharpened after taking office as he received daily threat briefings from intelligence agencies.
Mr. Obama’s announcement unleashed an outcry from the left, which favored aggressive pursuit of senior Bush officials, and from the right, which saw the White House decision as a threat to national security.
Aides to the president grew worried that the political tussle would sap the political energy needed to tackle such issues as health care and the economy.
“We really do want to move on, and we don’t want to look back,” one senior White House aide said. “It can absorb a lot of time and attention, and we have a lot to do.”
Aides say a key misstep came during a Sunday television interview. Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, appeared to rule out the possibility of charges against former Justice lawyers who drafted the memos.
His remarks veered onto dangerous turf. Such decisions are supposed to be made by the attorney general, not the White House. Aides say that was prominent in Mr. Obama’s mind when he stepped into the issue again on Tuesday, speaking to reporters as he met the Jordanian king.
The president said any decision on prosecuting Bush officials was up to Mr. Holder. In effect, Mr. Obama left the door open to prosecutions, although aides say he had no intention of endorsing criminal pursuit of Bush officials.
Then the president laid out why a nonpartisan “truth commission” might be a good way to investigate the previous administration. He made clear he wasn’t endorsing the idea.
Republicans quickly seized the issue. The Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, fired off a release within hours of the president’s remarks, saying Mr. Obama had “wasted no time in backtracking on another promise.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney and adviser Karl Rove accused Mr. Obama of undermining U.S. security. Any talk of prosecuting officials from the Bush administration contradicts Mr. Obama’s campaign promise of bipartisanship, critics said.
On Wednesday night, the president met Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the White House to say he opposed an investigative commission. Sen. Reid went before the cameras the next day to side with the president, in effect scotching the commission idea for now.
By late Friday, administration officials said they believed prosecutions were unlikely ever to happen.