With the United States already split down the middle by the Obama administration's attempts to introduce health care reform, the opening up of an investigation into alleged CIA abuse of prisoners looks likely to put an end once and for all to the president's hopes of healing the country's deep divisions.
The announcement by US Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday that he had appointed a federal prosecutor to look into possible abuses by CIA interrogators in the war on terror has unleashed attacks from both the conservative right and those to the liberal left who feel the probe will not go far enough.
A CIA report from 2004 newly declassified and released on Monday by the Obama administration revealed some of the harsh tactics used by CIA interrogators on captured terror suspects. One detainee, accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, was threatened with the murder of his child. Another was told he would be forced to watch his mother raped. The method of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, often went beyond what was authorized, prisoners were slapped and handguns and power drills were used to threaten detainees.
Veteran federal prosecutor John Durham is now charged with looking into these possible abuses by CIA agents who may have overstepped even the wide latitude that they were given under the Bush administration's highy controversial guidelines.
'Senior Officials Authorized Torture'
Republican senators have attacked the appointment, saying the probe could hamper US intelligence efforts. Former Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated an earlier allegation that the Obama administration was undermining national security and that the intelligence obtained from the harsh interrogation techniques had saved lives. In a statement Cheney said that those who carried out the interrogations "deserve our gratitude" and do not deserve to be "targets of political investigations or prosecutions."
However, several Democrats as well as officials with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International have complained that the probe is too narrow in scope because it will not investigate the behavior of officials in the Bush administration who sanctioned the interrogations program.
"Any investigation that begins and ends with so-called rogue interrogators would be completely inadequate given the evidence that's already in the public domain," Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU told the Associated Press. "We know that senior officials authorized torture."
German commentators on Wednesday praise the launch of the investigation but most would like to see it widened to bring George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to account.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The public has a right to know the full truth about what happened in America's torture chambers and about the attempts by George W. Bush's government to cover this up. Attorney General Eric Holder has now appointed a special investigator to look into the worst excesses."
"President Barack Obama is not enthusiastic. ... It is understandable that Obama might want to leave alone the sins of his predecessor. The culture clash over health care reform has shown once again how deeply divided this country has become, with two irreconcilable camps. The Republicans are prepared to do everything they can to damage Obama. They want one thing: To see the president fail. That's why they are pushing a fundamentalist opposition against any health care reform, despite the fact that the conservatives realize how urgently this is required. If one follows the weird debate about this reform, it becomes clear just what the US faces in the event of investigations and even trials of CIA agents."
"The Republicans will attempt to recreate an atmosphere of collective hysteria similar to that which followed the 2001 attacks. Back then the fear of another terrorist attack prevented all sensible thoughts. Concerns about the rule of law were pushed to the side. The Republicans will accuse Obama of putting the country's security in jeopardy."
"Nevertheless, there can be no alternative to shedding light on the events in the CIA jails. What happened there was simply wrong and not in tune with the American principles of the rule of law and with the country's deeply rooted awareness of human dignity. The logical consequence of this investigation would be that those who allowed, justified or even ordered abuse and torture would be brought to justice. It was George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who are to blame for the fact that America lost its decency and its reputation."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"The break with the Bush era took longer than Barack Obama's supporters may have hoped for. Only after plenty of resistance has the US president now brought himself to take a closer look at the brutal interrogation methods used by CIA operatives and have any perpetrators prosecuted. As understandable as Obama's initial hesitancy is from a tactical point of view, it is important that he now clearly advocates a comprehensive investigation and punishment."
"Before his inauguration, Obama faced a dilemma. Although he wanted to bring about far-reaching change in the US, he felt that he needed to rely on the support of the broader public, including those who had not voted for him. Obama's goal was to build a consensus to bring about his mammoth projects, such as the stimulus packages, a climate protection law and reforms to banking regulations and the health system. He wanted to soften the hardened political positions of the Bush era and to overcome the divide in society. If a few misdeeds from the past went unatoned, than that was an acceptable price to pay for Obama's greater aims."
"In the meantime it seems neither necessary nor effective to take too much heed of the sensitivities of the Republican camp. Important decisions in the fight against the economic crisis have already been made. And the Republicans' aggressive and populist campaign against Obama's healthcare reform has broken any bipartisan consensus."
"The president should now concentrate on reconciling his disappointed supporters. Obama's new direction would be more credible if he also made responsible those in the previous administration who ordered the questionable interrogation methods. And if he were to make the investigation into allegation of torture a top priority, rather than hiding behind his attorney general."
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Those who want a better tomorrow should look forwards not backwards. That idea is part of the American self image. When Barack Obama promised during the election campaign that he did not want to look back in anger at those who were responsible for war and violence, he was perfectly in tune with this ideal. America had instead to once again reinvent itself."
"The Democrat had hoped that this strategy would win over important Republican votes for the implementation of his grand projects such as health care reform. The deal was: I will leave your deeds unpunished and you allow me to make America a better country. As a candidate Obama already had a refined sense of what the political class would allow."
"The pressure on Obama is now growing. It is disillusioning to see that he only called on an independent investigator after the CIA's gruesome deeds became public. In the name of the United States, people were tortured and even threatened with the murder and rape of their relatives. 'Unbelievable' is the likely first reaction. Particularly when one hears how Dick Cheney coolly defends these excesses right up until today."
"Upon calmer reflection, however, it is less surprising that something like this could happen in the privatized politics of the Bush administration. Set free from democratic controls and driven by a greed for profits, a system could establish itself in which the humanitarian principles played no role at all."
"Whether Obama likes it or not as US president he carries the responsibility for his country not just today and tomorrow but also during its recent past. And that is why he must expose the CIA crimes rigorously. And he has to hold those responsible accountable even if they belong to his own political class. If Obama is serious about a new beginning then he must do everything to make sure that Cheney, who was after all the brains behind the horror, is brought to justice."