Obama: "We need to look forward"

The president-elect plays down the possibility of large-scale investigations into the Bush administration's conduct.

Published January 12, 2009 5:15PM (EST)

With President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration now just more than a week away, the question on a lot of liberals' minds is what the Obama administration will do about the various ways in which the Bush administration apparently broke the law. In fact, on the transition team's Web site, one of the most popular reader-submitted queries is about whether a special prosecutor will be appointed.

On Sunday, ABC News' George Stephanopoulos gave Obama a chance to answer that question. The president-elect's response shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying close attention to the signals coming from him and his team, but it's bound to upset some people. Here's the exchange between the two men:

OBAMA: We're still evaluating how we're going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we're going to look at past practices. And I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that for example at the CIA, you've got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don't want them to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So no 9/11 Commission with independent seeking of power?

OBAMA: Well we have not made any final decisions but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward, we are doing the right thing. That doesn't mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation's going to be to move forward.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So let me just press that one more time. You're not ruling out prosecution, but will you tell your Justice Department to investigate these cases and follow the evidence where it leads?

OBAMA: What I -- I think my general view when it comes to my attorney general is that he's the people's lawyer. Eric Holder's been nominated. His job is to uphold the Constitution and look after the interests of the American people. Not be swayed by my day-to-day politics. So ultimately, he's going to be making some calls. But my general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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