Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The White House's smoothly run message-making machinery broke down last week in contradictory statements that have reignited the terrorist-interrogation controversy.

In the space of a week, the West Wing turned into a Tower of Babel as administration officials from President Obama to his chief of staff to his national intelligence adviser delivered wildly different positions.

At the core of their disagreements was the issue of whether to pursue legal action against Bush administration officials who gave the go-ahead to the CIA to conduct carefully "enhanced interrogation techniques" on high-value terrorist prisoners.

One of the first actions Obama took soon after taking office was to sign an executive order to ban such practices. But he showed little appetite for a long, drawn-out investigation and prosecution of past officials who either approved of the techniques or carried them out.

Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, thought he was delivering the administration's position when he went on ABC's "This Week" and said the president had no interest in pursuing prosecutions. Obama wants to move forward and not look backward, Emanuel said.

But by midweek, Obama made a stunning 180-degree turn, declining to rule out prosecution of Bush administration officials who authorized the kind of interrogation practices that have kept us safe since Sept. 11, 2001.

The week before, he released a statement leaving open the potential for legal actions, but had not spoken about the issue directly.

Then he went to the CIA last week to make clear that he had no intention of punishing anyone in the agency for following the guidelines approved by the Bush administration's Justice Department.

"For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions of guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it's appropriate for them to be prosecuted," he told reporters at the White House Tuesday.

"With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that," he added.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.