After opening the door to a truth commission to investigate torture by the CIA of al-Qaida subjects, and leaving the door open to prosecution of higher-ups, President Obama walked the cat back.
He is now opposed to a truth commission. That means it is dead. He is no longer interested in prosecutions. That means no independent counsel -- for now.
Sen. Harry Reid does not want any new "commissions, boards, tribunals, until we find out what the facts are." Thus, there will be none. The place to find out the facts, says the majority leader, is the intelligence committee of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Though belated, White House recognition that high-profile public hearings on the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA in the Bush-Cheney years could divide the nation and rip this city apart is politically wise.
For any such investigation must move up the food chain from CIA interrogators, to White House lawyers, to the Cabinet officers who sit on the National Security Council, to Dick Cheney, to The Decider himself.
And what is the need to re-air America's dirty linen before a hostile world, when the facts are already known.
The CIA did use harsh treatment on al-Qaida. That treatment was sanctioned by White House and Justice Department lawyers. The NSC, Cheney and President Bush did sign off. And Obama has ordered all such practices discontinued.
This is not a question of "What did the president know and when did he know it?" It is a question of the legality and morality of what is already known. And on this, the country is rancorously split.
Many contend that torture is inherently evil, morally outrageous and legally impermissible under both existing U.S. law and the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war.
Moreover, they argue, torture does not work.
Its harvest is hatred, deceptions and lies. And because it is cowardly and cruel, torture degrades those who do it, as well as those to whom it is done. It instills a spirit of revenge in its victims.
When the knowledge of torture is made public, as invariably it is, it besmirches America's good name and serves as a recruiting poster for our enemies and a justification to use the same degrading methods on our men and women.
And it makes us no better than the Chinese communist brain-washers of the Korean War, the Japanese war criminals who tortured U.S. POWs and the jailers at the Hanoi Hilton who tortured Sen. John McCain.