By DeWayne Wickham
You've got to wonder where this is headed.
The clamor over whether someone should be punished for the brutal interrogation techniques the CIA used against key al-Qaida detainees during George W. Bush's presidency increased sharply when President Barack Obama left open the prospect of federal prosecutions.
Obama said the CIA operatives who carried out those techniques should not be tried - because they believed they were acting within the law - but he was less forgiving of those who supplied the legal justification for the interrogation methods.
"With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that," Obama said.
Some of the interrogation techniques - including waterboarding, slamming a detainee's head against a wall, forced nudity, prolonged sleep deprivation and dousing a captive in near-freezing water - have been branded as torture by the Obama administration.
The president's willingness to absolve CIA interrogators but not necessarily those who gave them legal cover is a hair-splitting assessment of blame - and it raises questions about where such a course of action might ultimately lead.
So far, the biggest target seems to be Jay Bybee, an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration who told the CIA in a 2002 memorandum that its harsh interrogation techniques did not violate federal law. Bybee is now a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont has called on him to resign.
In an April 19 editorial, The New York Times called Bybee's justification of the interrogation techniques "nauseating" and said he is "unfit" to be an appeals court judge.
But even if Bybee does resign or is impeached, there are those who won't be satisfied unless someone lands in jail for the CIA's torture of a few detainees.
Obama should make sure that doesn't happen.
If he allows the Justice Department to pursue those who provided legal justification for the torture, how can the department ignore those who authorized it? Without such approval, the legal opinions were just empty talk.
If prosecutors go after those who authorized the torture, that trail will take them into the inner sanctums of the Bush administration.
In the spring of 2003, Dick Cheney, then the vice president, and Condoleezza Rice, then the National Security Adviser, approved those practices, according to a recently declassified document released by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Even more chilling, Bush told ABC News in April 2008 he was aware Cheney and Rice had discussed and approved the specific details of the interrogation methods.
"And yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved," he said.
As outraged as I am by the Bush administration's excesses in the name of national security, it would be a serious mistake to pursue those who justified or approved the CIA's use of torture.
This nation should not be subjected to that kind of legal trauma at a time when the war in Afghanistan is heating up - and the Obama administration soon may be forced to make some distasteful national security decisions of its own.
To spare the nation such bloodletting, Obama should pardon everyone involved in legitimizing, authorizing and carrying out the CIA's brutal interrogations - and put in place rules that guarantee it never happens again.