WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Monday set the country on a course to confront whether actions taken in the name of defending Americans instead crossed criminal lines.
In simultaneous moves, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. opened an investigation into whether CIA interrogators broke the law and the administration complied with a judge's order and released a long-secret CIA report that cataloged allegations of agency prisoner abuse.
The administration also released memos sought in recent months by former Vice President Dick Cheney that he argued attest to the success of the CIA's controversial methods, but that appeared inconclusive in part because the agency had blacked out large portions of the memos.
The release of the report by the CIA's inspector general provided the most comprehensive account to date of the interrogation program, with previously undisclosed details such as prisoners being choked to the point of passing out or threatened with harm to their families.
The administration sought to limit the impact of Monday's moves, which it appeared to make with some reluctance. Holder described the inquiry as "preliminary," and the White House left many pages of the CIA report blacked out.
But fallout from the decisions could prove difficult to contain.
The investigation is likely to intensify an already bitter battle in Washington over whether to punish career intelligence officials for how they executed the Bush administration's counter-terrorism campaign.
The investigation means that CIA counter-terrorism officials could face criminal scrutiny for years at a time when the agency and the Justice Department are supposed to be part of a seamless counter-terrorism team and contributing to a new elite interrogation outfit, which was also unveiled Monday.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, who had fought both the criminal investigation and the release of the inspector general's report, issued a statement to agency employees Monday describing the details of the document as "an old story."
"For the CIA now, the challenge is not the battles of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow," Panetta said.
In announcing the inquiry, Holder concluded that there was enough evidence to warrant a fresh examination of whether federal law had been violated. He said he realized the decision "will be controversial," but added: "It is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."
To lead the review, Holder tapped Assistant U.S. Atty. John H. Durham of Connecticut, who in 2008 was appointed by the Bush administration to investigate the destruction of CIA videotapes of detainee interrogations.
Durham already has assembled a team of investigators who will determine whether the preliminary review turns up enough evidence to warrant a criminal investigation.
Holder's decision to open the investigation was driven to a large degree by his reaction to reading the CIA inspector general report earlier this year.
The report was issued in 2004. Officials within the Justice Department at the time reviewed the document and opted to keep it secret. The report became available to the public, at least in part, for the first time Monday as the result of an ACLU lawsuit. The document includes new disclosures on how top Al Qaeda prisoners were told that their families faced harm if they didn't cooperate.
"We could get your mother in here," a CIA interrogator told Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the man suspected of plotting the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, according to the report. The threat was meant to prey on fears in the Middle East that prisoners are made to witness the sexual abuse of their relatives.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was told, "If anything else happens in the United States, 'We're going to kill your children,' " according to the report.
In some cases, the report praises how the CIA prisons were run, and acknowledges that the program provided valuable intelligence. During a 19-month stretch after the Sept. 11 attacks, the report said, the interrogation program accounted for 3,000 intelligence reports, providing the agency with much of its understanding of Al Qaeda.
Interrogations "provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists and warned of terrorist plots," the report said. Even so, the report concluded that the effectiveness of particular techniques "cannot be so easily measured," raising the question of whether the enhanced methods had been crucial to collecting that data.
But the report also faults CIA personnel across agency ranks for failures in oversight and abuses in the interrogation booth. In one passage, the document warns that the agency's activities "are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights." The document also cites the anxieties of CIA case officers fearful they would one day be held to account.