WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama is unlikely to probe President George W. Bush's 'torture' policies despite mounting calls by rights groups for independent investigation, analysts say.
Obama, who takes office January 20, signaled in an interview Sunday that he was not inclined to open an independent probe of his predecessor's actions unless there was evidence that US laws were broken.
Meanwhile, rights activists have boosted pressure on the incoming administration to prosecute US leaders for alleged abuses including torture techniques, domestic wiretaps without warrants, unlimited detention of suspects and mishandling the Iraq war.
Amnesty International has repeatedly called for "a thorough and independent investigation of the widespread and systematic abuses undertaken in the name of national security," and aligned itself on the issue with other groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Several Democrat lawmakers have also called for the creation of an independent panel of experts to probe policies that were instituted under Bush's claims of unreviewable presidential war powers, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
While some observers view this as a sign that the Democratic-led House and Senate intend to devote considerable time to an investigation of Bush's consolidation of power, Obama played down the possibility.
"We're still evaluating how we're going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth," Obama said on ABC This Week when asked about alleged abuses under Bush.
"My instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing," he said.
"That doesn't mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation's going to be to move forward."
According to Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney do not have blanket immunity due to their high level posts, but any trail of wrongdoing could be difficult to trace.
"Such prosecution could not succeed without extremely clear proof that the official in question personally directed the illegal actions charged," Tribe said.
"It would not be enough to prove that the individual was at the head of a chain of command overseeing a project or program in the course of which crimes were committed."
In December, a bipartisan panel of senators led by Democrat Carl Levin and Republican former White House hopeful John McCain issued a report blaming top administration officials for installing harmful interrogation policies such as forced nudity, prolonged standing, sleep deprivation and the use of dogs.
"The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own," the report said.
"The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."
Even though Obama had pledged to close the war-on-terror prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and vowed that his administration "will not torture," major American media outlets expressed skepticism about a possible probe of Bush's wartime actions.
"We do not hold out real hope that Barack Obama, as president, will take such a politically fraught step," the New York Times wrote in an editorial.
The Los Angeles Times echoed the sentiment.
Analyst Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution said that Obama, faced with the task of unifying bitterly partisan legislators and reversing the economic downturn, is not likely to take the risk of angering his Republican foes.
"Opening such a probe would embitter Republicans and diminish his capacity to pursue broad support for a number of challenging policy initiatives he will take on other fronts," he said.
"I think President Obama is unlikely to call for such an independent inquiry but instead focus on stating clearly what policy on these matters will be during his administration."
But even if the executive branch of US government does not call for a probe, nothing prevents rights groups from seeking to bring a case against former administration officials -- in which case the Supreme Court could have the last word.