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.
Clearly, Obama's decision to change the agreed-upon message in mid-rollout was in response to political pressure from his party's left-wing base, particularly the radical MoveOn.org, which wants to conduct a full-blown prosecutorial investigation and kangaroo-court hearings and indictments. He had tossed the ball into Attorney General Eric Holder's court, a long-established procedure known as passing the buck.
But there was yet another contradictory message from Obama's inner circle of advisers that became public last Wednesday. This one from Adm. Dennis C. Blair, director of National Intelligence, who directly challenged Obama's view that the Bush administration's interrogation techniques "did not make us safer."
Not so, Blair said in a memorandum to intelligence officials. "High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the Al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country," he wrote.
Blair's memo went out the same day Obama released classified Bush administration memos that authorized the interrogation tactics -- such as sleep deprivation -- which Obama has since banned.
There were other memos like Blair's that former Vice President Dick Cheney wants declassified and released to prove that the interrogation methods yielded critical information that foiled terrorist plots against us.
Take, for example, the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005, that said, as reported in the Washington Post, "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why Al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.'"
Once those techniques were used, they provided interrogators with the details of a plot to "use East Asian operatives" to crash hijacked airlines into buildings in Los Angeles. They "led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding Al Qaeda and its affiliates," the 2005 memo said.
Obama considers these kinds of techniques to be torture. Intelligence officials say they are sometimes necessary to protect American national security in an age of nuclear and biological weapons that can kill millions of people.
Even CIA Director Leon Panetta, who opposed the release of the Bush interrogation memos, does not rule out more aggressive techniques when needed. The agency might use some of these tactics in a crisis "ticking time bomb" scenario, he said at his Senate confirmation hearings.
Meanwhile, the administration remains dangerously divided on the use of coercive interrogation methods, Obama is flip-flopping to keep his left-wing allies on board, and Al Qaeda terrorists are using the interrogation memos he released to train their killers if they are ever taken prisoner.