Obama is having trouble straightening out his position on torture.

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April 23 2009 2:13 PM

One More Time, Please

The president is having trouble straightening out his position on torture.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

It may be time for an Obama do-over speech on the issue of torture. It's a form we've come to recognize—whether on the issue of bonuses for AIG executives or his relationship with his former pastor. He makes a declaration, the issue gets away from him, the political pressure builds, and he must rush in with a new declaration to contain the fallout.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

A timeline of recent events shows the mixed signals from the president and aides on the issue. Last Thursday, President Obama released memos detailing the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation techniques." In a statement, he simultaneously condemned those techniques and said that the interrogators who carried them out would be protected from prosecution. He also made a big pitch for turning the page, encouraging everyone not to spend "time and energy laying blame for the past." Two days later, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel expanded the circle of protection, telling George Stephanopoulos on ABC News that, in addition to the interrogators, those who "devised" the policy "should not be prosecuted either." The message was clear: We're moving on.

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But then the message got foggy. On Tuesday, the president contradicted Emanuel and shrunk the protected class. Obama said anyone (other than the interrogators) who broke the law should be held accountable and that his attorney general would go after them. He also voiced support for a nonpartisan commission to investigate the issue, although he has not been too keen about Sen. Patrick Leahy's proposal for a so-called "truth commission." This was interpreted as a reaction to anti-torture activists and liberal critics who thought Obama had lost his moral way.

So where does this leave Obama? In one sense, the administration's position may not be as confused as it seems. In his two recent statements on the matter, Obama has articulated both parts of a long-held, two-part answer to questions about the past. As he put it on ABC's This Week in early January: "I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards." (He used a similar construction in his first press conference.)

Then again, even people on the president's side are confused. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was briefed by Attorney General Eric Holder last Friday, after the memos were released. Four days later, she still wasn't clear. "We still don't know what this means for the higher-ups who may have directed those legal opinions or used those legal opinions to form policy," she said Wednesday. "Our members are upset about it," she told a group of reporters at a meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

From my reporting it's clear that the president and his aides really don't want a high-profile investigation into past wrongdoing. That's why their claims seem plausible that on Tuesday the president wasn't trying to open a new door to investigations but merely trying to return to his favorite balance: moving forward but insisting no one is above the law. Yes, he said his attorney general would prosecute wrongdoing, but that doesn't mean Obama expects Holder to make that his top priority. If there are no prosecutions of former Bush administration lawyers, it won't be a big issue at the attorney general's annual evaluation.

In a conversation Wednesday afternoon, one senior adviser mentioned at least four times that Obama didn't want to re-argue the debates of the last eight years. That's why, in internal debates before the release of the torture memos, Obama knocked down the idea of naming a 9/11-style commission.

But if Obama didn't want a commission, why then did he suggest one Tuesday? And why did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raise the idea in her testimony Wednesday before the armed-services committee in the House?

Obama does not want to name a commission himself because then he takes a matter he'd like to avoid and puts it squarely in his house. A presidential commission would be a daily distraction—Whom are you going to name to the commission? What do you think of their latest findings on this or that item? He'd be open to more charges from the left that he's not doing enough and charges from the right that he's aiming to criminalize people who tried to keep America safe. In addition, aides don't think independent voters have a big appetite for backward-looking investigations.

But Obama isn't the only one with a say on the matter. He may not want an investigation, but some in Congress do. If Congress must go forward, the president would prefer that it go forward in a way that minimizes the daily political freak show. A nonpartisan commission would bleach as much partisanship from the inquiry as possible.