Battleland

The torture debate is back, but what about the criminal probe?

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Advocates of so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques this week seized on the killing of Osama bin Laden to dust off the debate about the efficacy and legality of torture. The proponents claimed the successful raid was a vindication of those brutal intelligence-gathering methods during the Bush administration.

Obama administration officials showed little appetite for the deliberations, reflecting a president who has shown no interest in litigating the actions of his predecessor, much to the chagrin of civil liberties advocates.

For those advocates, the last, slim vestiges of hope that somebody, sometime, somehow will be held accountable for torture under the Bush administration now hangs on a small group of investigators sequestered deep inside the Brutalist cement J. Edgar Hoover FBI building in Washington.

That’s where veteran prosecutor John Durham has been holed up since 2008 looking into various aspects of Bush’s interrogation regime. The current scope of Durham’s inquiry, however, and why it is taking so long remain a mystery.

Sources familiar with Durham’s investigation say only that it remains active, but know little about the current scope of his spadework or the possible targets he is investigating.

The Justice Department did not answer a request for comment.

Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey originally appointed Durham to investigate the 2005 destruction by the agency of 92 videotapes including some depicting detainee abuse by agency operatives.

In August 2009, however, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed Durham to also look into the underlying abuse in 12 cases of the kind captured in those videos. Specifically, Holder wanted Durham to see if interrogators had exceeded even the brutal techniques authorized by a series of controversial Justice Department memos penned during the Bush administration. A 2004 report by the CIA inspector general documented instances of interrogators exceeding those authorized techniques, including threatening a detainee with a handgun and a power drill.

Durham concluded late last year that no officials would face charges with respect to the destruction of the videotapes. But the latter probe, into the underlying abuse, remains open.

Either Durham’s work will quietly fade into history, or explode on the front page unexpectedly, depending on Durham’s probe and his boss, Holder.

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