The White House was on Wednesday struggling to clarify its stance on the possible punishment of officials responsible for authorising torture during George W. Bush’s administration, after a week of mixed signals on the potentially explosive issue.

Barack Obama appeared to open the door to prosecution of former officials on Tuesday, when he said it was up to the attorney-general to decide whether legal action was justified.

But the White House on Wednesday insisted there had been no change in the president’s preference for “reflection, not retribution” over the treatment of alleged enemy combatants after the September 2001 attacks.

Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, made clear that Mr Obama had little enthusiasm for a divisive inquest into torture at a time when he was trying to revive the economy and push on with ambitious legislative goals. “The president, as he said, has a lot on his plate and he believes our focus looking forward should be on the crises in the bank industry, in unemployment, the financial sector.”

The White House has come under pressure from left-leaning Democrats and human rights groups to back an inquiry into the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” programme – particularly since the release last week of memos detailing the techniques used.

Nancy Pelosi, House speaker, on Wednesday added her voice to those calling for a “truth commission” to probe the issue. She said the commission “might remove all doubt that how we protect the American people is in a values-based way”.

John Boehner, Republican House leader, accused the Democrats of “looking backwards” when most Americans want the government to focus on the economy.

Those calling for an investigation drew fresh ammunition on Wednesday from a Senate report into abusive detention and interrogation practices. The report by the Senate armed services committee concluded that Bush administration officials should be held more accountable for the kind of abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

“The report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration’s interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame to soldiers,” said Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the committee.

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