Risk missing big fish in CIA torture review

President Obama's decision to let Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. set an independent course to determine whether anti-torture laws were broken by the CIA or its contractors is less than satisfying.

While it allows the nation's chief law enforcement officer to prosecute specific alleged crimes, it may not answer who was ultimately responsible for the actions of minions. It bears repeating that a bipartisan truth commission that grants immunity to witnesses may be the best way to set the historical record straight so that the sordid past won't be repeated.

Finally removing the wraps Monday from a 2004 report on abuses at overseas CIA prisons, officials revealed that operatives had repeatedly choked one prisoner, made threats against family members, staged mock executions, and put a gun and a power drill to the head of another prisoner.

In light of those disclosures, it was no surprise that Holder chose to proceed with his expected appointment of a prosecutor to review CIA interrogation tactics for possible criminal charges.

It's still quite likely that the prosecutor, veteran John H. Durham, will come to the conclusion reached by an earlier Justice Department review of nearly two-dozen cases of harsh prisoner interrogations. Only one of those cases went to trial - that of CIA contractor David A. Passaro, who was convicted of assault.

Even before Durham starts his work, it's also clear that he won't end the heated public debate about the proper targets for such a probe. CIA documents indicate that the harsh treatment was directed meticulously from Washington by the agency and Justice Department.


Should a Justice Dept. prosecutor review possible charges against top Bush aides over prisoner abuse?

Shouldn't Bush administration higher-ups and legal advisers face scrutiny for loosening the interrogation rules to the point where field operatives skirted torture?

That's one major potential flaw in going after low-level operatives. There's also the likelihood that this whole exercise will stir up partisan rancor of the kind that could only hamper the president's domestic agenda.

The allegations of harsh interrogations by the CIA and its contractors have prompted Obama to establish a multiagency interrogation unit under the FBI. It will conduct interrogations that comply with the Army Field Manual, which bars strong-arm tactics.

That's a good move. But the president should also take steps that would lead to creation of a bipartisan truth commission that determines once and for all how this nation found itself employing antiterror policies and tactics that trampled the Constitution.