WASHINGTON — Conservatives and liberals alike reacted critically, though for different reasons, to Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to appoint a federal prosecutor to investigate possible abuses by CIA interrogators in using harsh tactics on terror detainees.
Conservatives, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, said the probe wrongly targeted those who helped keep the nation safe after the Sept. 11 attacks and would diminish the ability of the government to safeguard Americans. Civil liberties groups were unhappy that officials from the administration of President George W. Bush were not targeted in the probe.
Holder on Monday appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to look into abuse allegations after the release of an internal CIA inspector general's report that revealed agency interrogators once threatened to kill a Sept. 11 suspect's children and suggested another would be forced to watch his mother be sexually assaulted.
President Barack Obama has said interrogators would not face charges if they followed legal guidelines. However, the report said that some CIA interrogators went beyond Bush administration restrictions that gave them wide latitude to use severe tactics such as waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique. Three high-level suspects underwent waterboarding scores of times.
Obama's caveat has not satisfied Cheney, who claimed earlier this year that the Obama administration is making the nation less secure by dismantling Bush-era initiatives aimed at disrupting terrorist plans. He repeated the assertion Monday, saying the Justice Department probe and a new FBI unit to handle interrogations were "a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this administration's ability to be responsible for our nation's security."
"The activities of the CIA in carrying out the policies of the Bush administration were directly responsible for defeating all efforts by al-Qaida to launch further mass casualty attacks against the United States," Cheney said. "The people involved deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions."
Cheney contended that the inspector general's report showed that the severe techniques resulted in "the bulk of intelligence we gained about al-Qaida" and "saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks."
Although the report somewhat buttressed Cheney's contention by saying the interrogations obtained some information that identified terrorists and plots, the inspector general also raised broad concerns about the legality and effectiveness of the tactics, saying that measuring their success is "a more subjective process and not without some concern."
Cheney and others have warned that opening investigations into incidents outlined by the CIA report will destroy morale at the agency and discourage its staff from aggressive intelligence work on terror cases.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the announcement of a special prosecutor a "poor and misguided decision," noting that the cases of abuse have already been reviewed and passed on by federal prosecutors.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the investigation will be a distraction to the spy agency. Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, called Holder's decision "disgraceful."
The CIA interrogators "should be given medals for saving American lives," King said Tuesday.
Several key Democrats and officials with Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday that the potential prosecutions are a start, but they said the probe does nothing to investigate the actions of officials who sanctioned the brutal interrogation program.
"Any investigation at this point is welcome," Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's national security project, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But any investigation that begins and ends with the so-called rogue interrogators would be completely inadequate given the evidence that's already in the public domain. We know that senior officials authorized torture and we know that DOJ lawyers facilitated torture."
Amnesty International-USA was similarly unimpressed. Tom Parker, its director of terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights, likened limiting the prosecutions to interrogators to "going after the drug mule and leaving the drug king pin alone."
Parker met with the White House's outreach office Tuesday and told the AP that officials made Obama's stand on the matter clear: An investigation into the previous administration's policies is not in the cards.
"He doesn't think it will be politically useful to indulge in an investigation," Parker said.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said the Justice Department inquiry doesn't go far enough.
"The abuses that were officially sanctioned amounted to torture and those at the very top who authorized, ordered or sought to provide legal cover for them should be held accountable," Feingold said in a statement issued late Monday.
Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.