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Obama throws up his hands

President acknowledges his inability to stop investigations into torture as latest review is released.

Protesters calling for the closing of the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, stand outside of the White House in Washington, Mar. 5, 2009. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama is discovering that there are some things a president cannot control — like whether Bush administration officials who authorized the use of forceful interrogation tactics in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks will face a public reckoning and potential legal sanctions.

Obama bowed to that reality today, acknowledging that he cannot rein in Justice Department prosecutors if they determine that the law was broken. And he’s apparently concluded that supporting an independent investigation like that conducted by the 9/11 Commission might be the best way to stave off a polarizing show trial on Capitol Hill.

“I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively, and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations,” Obama said.

Neither the Justice Department, nor Congress, needs a president’s permission to investigate. Indeed, several congressional committees already have been probing how and why torture techniques became part of U.S. interrogation practices, and the Justice Department office of legal ethics is preparing its own report on Bush-era lawyers involved in the decision.

The Senate Armed Services Committee released the latest review on Tuesday night — a declassified account of the investigation the panel conducted last year. It details how, after high-level officials in the Bush administration OK'd the harsh techniques for terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, the practices spread to Afghanistan and then Iraq, despite protests by some military officials.

“Senior administration officials … attempted to shift the blame for abuse — such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan — to low ranking soldiers,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. “The truth is, early on, it was senior civilian leaders who set the tone.”

The report concludes that it was “authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials (that) resulted in abuse,” Levin said.