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Gergen: Be Wary of Torture Prosecutions

Veteran presidential advisor David Gergen said today on the show that he had “serious, deep reservations” about the Obama administration launching any prosecutorial effort against officials who authored the so-called “torture memos.”

Gergen, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and advisor to four presidents, said he saw the need for a “thorough airing” on the torture issue – and potentially for more information and memos to be released. But he believed prosecution went too far.

In terms of actually going after people, I think we should be moderate in doing that. It does seem to me it was right…to say that CIA employees should not be prosecuted in any fashion. And I have serious, deep reservations about launching some sort of prosecutorial special investigative effort by the Justice Department about lawyers who rendered their opinions. We have not done that in the past. It is going to have a hugely chilling effect. And it will destroy any semblance of bipartisanship in Washington, if a new administration is seen to use prosecutorial powers to go after a preceding administration.

Calls for prosecution have been coming from many quarters, particularly from liberals (just today, see Paul Krugman of The New York Times and Glenn Greenwald of Salon; also hear law professor Jonathan Turley on our show Monday.) Though President Obama has said he ruled out prosecuting CIA officials, he said he was leaving it up to Attorney General Eric Holder to decide whether or not to pursue higher-ranking Bush administration officials.

Gergen said that such a prosecution effort could spin out of control:

…We’re talking now about going after lawyers who rendered their legal judgments and talking about putting them in the dock as potential criminals. And by the way, are we then also going to go after the President and Vice President who signed off on this? And very importantly, are we going to go after the Congressional leaders who signed off on these procedures, some of whom are leading Democrats? And if we’re going to be fair about this…This path is going to take us where it leads. It leads to many, many different people. And do we really want to have now a whole set of criminal prosecutions in Washington over this issue or not? I think that’s very much what’s at stake here.

It remains unclear what Democratic lawmakers knew about the specifics of tough interrogation tactics such as waterboarding. Media reports have suggested some knew of the methods used. Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, said yesterday on On Point that he was not briefed on methods, despite his position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2002 when the interrogration programs began.

This program aired on April 24, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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