Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot

Press Reduces Torture Investigations Into Partisan Warfare

Posted: Updated:

News that President Obama is open to having an independent commission investigate the use of torture during the Bush years is undoubtedly the story of the day, with implications extending back to the previous administration and far into the future.

In the aftermath of the president's statement, however, the preponderance of attention has been spent on political minutia as opposed to the policy details. The media, in particular, focused almost exclusively on two specific angles: had Obama cowered to those liberal proponents of prosecuting Bush officials, and had he contradicted his own administration in expressing openness in doing so?

In the process, the issue of launching an investigation -- which would have to be bipartisan in nature for Obama to support it -- was reduced into an overtly partisan and cynical frame. Issues of justice and morality boiled down into "the left's" influence compared to "the right."

The mood was set even before White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs came to the podium to talk about the president's remarks. "There does seem to be a little bit of a reaction to how this was received on the left," said Chuck Todd, White House correspondent for NBC. "Frankly this feels like a political food fight now. Vice President Cheney on one side, President Obama on the other. The hard left, the hard right, fighting over this in the blogosphere. When he talks about - he fears the politicization - that may be too late."

It was continued well into the briefing, where MoveOn.org and two Democratic Senators were trotted out as suspected catalysts for Obama's willingness to investigate.

"What changed over the last 24 hours?" asked CNN's Ed Henry. "Because yesterday you were flat in saying that we're not going there, as Rahm was on Sunday. And in the last 24 hours we've seen groups like MoveOn.org on the left come out and write a petition to the Attorney General saying they want accountability from the Bush administration. Is this an example of this White House giving in to pressure from the left?"

"I don't -- I have not, and I doubt the President has been on moveon.org in the last 24 hours, so, no," responded Gibbs.

Later, another reporter asked whether comments by Sens. Diane Feinstein and Russ Feingold pushing backs on Emanuel's statement "have some influence on what the president said today?"

"Not that I'm aware of," Gibbs responded. "No."

It was the simplification of a complex legal and political matter that even the folks being credited for moving Obama's hand scoffed at.

"Torture is illegal under the laws of our nation--this is not a question of left or right; it's a question of America's moral leadership," Justin Ruben, Executive Director of MoveOn.org Political Action, said in a statement to the Huffington Post. "The only way to be certain that this never happens again is to investigate, and prosecute the leaders responsible, and today our members joined a growing chorus of voices asking the Attorney General to do just that."

Indeed, five questions into the hour-long presser, Gibbs had been asked five separate times whether Obama had shifted his position. In one particular sequence, he was pressed in rapid-fire succession whether the president had "learned anything since those previous comments," whether he was saying "there was absolutely no change in policy today," and, for good measure, whether the president has "changed his policy today?"

To the fourth estate's credit, Obama did seem to be contradicting members of his own staff. Whereas the president said on Monday that he wanted the Attorney General to make the determination on prosecuting "those who formulated those legal decisions" on torture, his chief of staff insisted on Sunday that, "those who devised the policy... should not be prosecuted..." Moreover, in insisting that it was not the president's purview to weigh into the judicial debates over who may or may not have committed criminal activity during the Bush years, Gibbs did seem to invalidate Obama's prior statements that those officials who were merely following orders didn't do anything criminally wrong.

To these points, Gibbs largely floundered, sticking to the talking point that Obama had not changed tracks, favored looking forward not back, but would prosecute crimes when they were exposed. He was correct in one respect: the issue is largely not in the White House's hands. Congress can and likely will create the committee to investigate the matter, with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy trying to take the lead on that front. And the Justice Department - independent of the president - will be the place where any prosecutions originate.

"The president believes and was assured by the Department of Justice that those who have acted in good faith on what they believed was legal won't be prosecuted," Gibbs stressed. "The president still believes that."

Become a fan of HuffPost Politics on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.