WASHINGTON - The grim issue of torture is vexing President Barack Obama and his party as a top Democrat fights accusations she knew about Bush-era interrogation policies for years and the president takes heat for refusing to release photos depicting more abuses of terror suspects by U.S. soldiers.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, came out swinging Thursday in the face of relentless attacks from Republicans who accuse her of knowing in 2003 that terrorist suspects were being waterboarded and failing to speak up.
"They misrepresented every step of the way, and they don't want that focus on them, so they try to turn the focus on us," Pelosi said of Republican efforts to implicate her in the much-maligned interrogation policies of the previous president, George W. Bush.
Pelosi accused the CIA and Bush administration officials of misleading her about the practice and vehemently denied she was complicit.
"To the contrary ... we were told explicitly that waterboarding was not being used," said Pelosi of a formal CIA briefing she received a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Republicans have been insisting for weeks that Pelosi and other Democrats knew about the waterboarding of terrorist suspects, but made no attempt to stop it and are now disingenuously crying foul about Bush's interrogation program.
Obama has banned waterboarding, calling it torture. But the president is under fire this week for reversing his position on releasing photos that show American soldiers abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His usual cheerleaders on the left are outraged by the decision, saying he's caved in to those who vehemently defend the Bush administration, especially former vice-president Dick Cheney.
"This is an unbelievable moment. Dick Cheney's PR offensive over the last month actually worked," wrote Cenk Uygur on the left-leaning Daily Kos website.
"Barack Obama just crumbled and will follow Cheney's command to not release the new set of detainee abuse pictures."
Cheney has been accusing Obama for months of endangering America with his torture ban. The former No. 2 in Bush's White House also insists waterboarding and other controversial interrogation techniques gleaned significant information in the war on terror that likely saved "hundreds of thousands of lives."
Obama said he reversed his position on the photos after commanders warned the new images could set off a deadly backlash against American troops.
But others wondered if a shrewd Obama has a long game in sight, knowing his change of heart would appease his critics on the right and in the military but knowing the photos are likely to be ordered released by the courts anyway.
Stephen Hess, a onetime aide to President Richard Nixon, scoffs at those theories making the rounds among torture opponents on Thursday.
"I've been in the West Wing and I've seen what happens when these guys get to the White House," Hess, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, said Thursday.
"He learned things that you learn after you become president, when you find out you have a lot of interests beyond what you campaigned on. Top military people really leaned on him and made the case, and he listened to them."
Obama isn't campaigning anymore, Hess pointed out - he's now commander-in-chief.
"And he said: 'Hey, you're right, I am the commander-in-chief and I am responsible for these soldiers and there's no question this is going to put them in more danger.' He's learned something that he didn't know before."
Nonetheless, the Bush administration's interrogation policies have become an international black eye for the United States that is showing no signs of fading.
A top United Nations official urged the Obama administration on Thursday to prosecute those accused of torture and other abuses.
In an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, Navi Pillay said Washington should investigate all U.S. renditions of terrorism suspects and ensure any interrogators who mistreated them are brought to justice for violating an international ban on torture.
The United States' election on Tuesday to the UN's Human Rights Council could help the cause of human rights and America's standing in the international community, said Pillay, the organization's high commissioner on human rights.
"The U.S. should ... shed light into the still opaque areas that surround capture, interrogation methods, rendition and detention conditions of those alleged to have been involved in terrorism, and ensure that perpetrators of torture and abuse are held to account," Pillay wrote.
UN human rights investigators launched a global inquiry into secret detentions last March, and say they'll keep up their scrutiny of U.S. counterterrorism policies under Obama.