George W Bush is considering issuing pardons for US spies embroiled in allegations of torture just before he leaves the White House.
Senior intelligence officers are lobbying the outgoing president to look after the men and women who could face charges for following his orders in the war on terrorism.
Many fear that Barack Obama, who has pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and put an end to the policy of extraordinary rendition, could launch a legal witch hunt against those who oversaw the policies after he is sworn in on Jan 20.
Most vulnerable are US intelligence officers who took part in intensive interrogations against terrorist suspects, using techniques including water boarding, which many believe crossed the line into torture.
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A former CIA officer familiar with the backstage lobbying for pardons, said: “These are the people President Bush asked to fight the war on terror for him. He gave them the green light to fight tough. The view of many in the intelligence community is that he should not leave them vulnerable to legal censure when he leaves.
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“An effort is under way to get pre-emptive pardons. The White House has indicated that the matter is under consideration.”
In addition to frontline CIA and military officers, others at risk could include David Addington, Dick Cheney’s former counsel, and William Haynes, the former Pentagon general counsel who helped draw up the regulations governing enhanced interrogations.
Many in the Democratic party and human rights groups are calling on President-Elect Obama to tear up Mr Bush’s executive orders licensing intensive interrogations on his first day in the Oval Office. They also want an immediate end to rendition, whereby suspects are flown to countries that practise torture.