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Commentary: The tortured logic of going after torture policy-makers

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SAN DIEGO -- President Obama insists that his administration doesn't torture.

But just what does Obama think he's doing to some of his supporters by releasing interrogation memos that cast the Bush administration in a bad light, then refusing to follow through by prosecuting the offenders? While thrilled about the disclosure, many on the left are furious over the reluctance to prosecute. The New York Times editorial page argued that, without accountability, "there is no hope of fixing a profoundly broken system of justice and ensuring that these acts are never repeated."

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Such criticism is unfair. Obama was right to release the four memos, and also right not to prosecute CIA officials who acted with authorization from superiors. You'll never convince the extremes -- on both right and left -- but both decisions serve our national interest.

Of course, there is still the chance that the administration could satisfy supporters by going after the memos' authors -- Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury and John Yoo, who were all formerly employed by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. That's considered a long shot given that Obama has talked about turning the page and looking forward.

Yet just this week, Obama seemed to hedge on that by saying the matter should be handled by the attorney general. Americans should not use truth commissions and political show trials to settle old scores, even if it would -- in this case -- give the Bush-haters some perverse satisfaction. What it would certainly do, as former officials in the Bush administration and others have said in recent days, is hamper the work of the CIA by making agency operatives afraid they could be punished depending on the prevailing political winds.

My concern is not what Obama did, but his reasons for doing it. The president insists that releasing the memos promotes transparency.

In a way, it does. Obama's motives can be awfully transparent -- as in you can see right through them. Obama seems to be using sleight of hand and rhetorical flourishes to try to have it both ways.

Just a few days after taking office, the president signed -- against the advice of U.S. intelligence officials from the Bush administration -- an executive order that bars the CIA from using interrogation methods that amount to torture. Then Obama signed more executive orders that preserve the CIA's authority to carry out renditions, or secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries where they might be tortured. So you could say that instead of engaging in torture, we outsource it.

Now, by releasing the torture memos over the objections of CIA Director Leon Panetta, Obama is being portrayed in the media as the "un-Bush" -- more enlightened and more humane than his predecessor, the same message that he recently heralded throughout Europe. At a town-hall meeting in Strasbourg, France, Obama delighted in telling the crowd: "I can stand here today and say without equivocation or exception that the United States of America does not and will not torture."

But apparently, Obama doesn't like to deal with the messiness that comes from holding people accountable for their actions. If the president feels so strongly that torture should never be tolerated, he could authorize a full investigation into what took place during CIA interrogations and allow for the prosecution of wrongdoers. And, if he really believes that actually carrying out the punishment would do more harm than good, he could pardon the offenders if convicted. But that decision could harm his legacy.

So, it's easier to try to make the whole episode disappear with a good speech. And, Obama delivered a fine one this week at CIA headquarters.

"Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes," Obama told the CIA staff. "That's how we learn. But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be president of the United States, and that's why you should be proud to be members of the CIA."

Right again, Mr. President. Those who serve our country, often at great personal sacrifice and against impossible odds, should be proud. And when elected officials simply do the right thing rather than manipulate public perception by making themselves look good and others look bad, they provide a kind of leadership of which we can all be proud.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is navarrette@wctrib.com.

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