Memo: Laws Didn’t Apply to Interrogators
Justice Dept. Official in 2003 Said President’s Wartime Authority Trumped Many Statutes
The Justice Department sent a legal memorandum to the Pentagon in 2003 asserting that federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming and other crimes did not apply to military interrogators who questioned al-Qaeda captives because the president’s ultimate authority as commander in chief overrode such statutes….
Translation: The President is above the law — all laws, any law — because he is the commander in chief, and therefore his subordinates are likewise above the law. Everyone out there agree with that?
“If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network,” Yoo wrote. “In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.”
Translation: The ends justify the means.
Interrogators who harmed a prisoner would be protected by a “national and international version of the right to self-defense,” Yoo wrote. He also articulated a definition of illegal conduct in interrogations — that it must “shock the conscience” — that the Bush administration advocated for years.
“Whether conduct is conscience-shocking turns in part on whether it is without any justification,” Yoo wrote, explaining, for example, that it would have to be inspired by malice or sadism before it could be prosecuted.
Translation: From a legal standpoint, it’s the torturer who gets to decide whether or not he’s conducting "torture".
Regular readers of Glenn Greenwald know his reaction, and true to form, he rips Yoo a new one:
The fact that John Yoo is a Professor of Law at Berkeley and is treated as a respectable, serious expert by our media institutions, reflects the complete destruction over the last eight years of whatever moral authority the United States possessed. Comporting with long-held stereotypes of two-bit tyrannies, we’re now a country that literally exempts our highest political officials from the rule of law, and have decided that there should be no consequences when they commit serious felonies.
John Yoo’s Memorandum, as intended, directly led to — caused — a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq. The reason such a relatively low-level DOJ official was able to issue such influential and extraordinary opinions was because he was working directly with, and at the behest of, the two most important legal officials in the administration: George Bush’s White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney’s counsel (and current Chief of Staff) David Addington. Together, they deliberately created and authorized a regime of torture and other brutal interrogation methods that are, by all measures, very serious war crimes.
If writing memoranda authorizing torture — actions which then directly lead to the systematic commission of torture — doesn’t make one a war criminal in the U.S., what does?
On the other hand, Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin makes a critical point:
Lawyers can make really bad legal arguments that argue for very unjust things in perfectly legal sounding language. I hope nobody is surprised by this fact. It is very commonplace. Today we are talking about lawyers making arguments defending the legality of torture. In the past lawyers have used legal sounding arguments to defend slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, rape (both spousal and non-spousal), Jim Crow, police brutality, denials of habeas corpus, destruction or seizure of property, and compulsory sterilization. . . . .
I think that is a fair point, but not persuasive. A good lawyer can make a case defending any position. But an ethical lawyer will stand up and tell his client (in this case, the United States) that such a position, even if he can make an argument, is a monstorously bad one, both legally and politically. Yoo is not ethical, period.
Oh, yeah. And his oath was to protect the Constitution, not the Bush Administration.
Harper‘s Scott Horton makes a further point as to why Yoo shouldn;t be merely viewed as a lawyer doing his job:
These memoranda have been crafted not as an after-the-fact defense to criminal charges, but rather as a roadmap to committing crimes and getting away with it. They are the sort of handiwork we associate with the consigliere, or mob lawyer. But these consiglieri are government attorneys who have sworn an oath, which they are violating, to uphold the law.
Some legal ripping-apart of the memos, by Slate‘s Emily Bazelon:
What takes my breath away about the Yoo memos, now that we can finally read them, is their air of uttery certainty. One after another, complex questions of constitutional law are dispatched as if there’s no cause for any debate. The president has all the war-making power. Congress has none. The president’s commander in chief powers extend to interrogations (no matter how far from the battlefield in space and time they take place). Guantanamo Bay detainees and enemy aliens enjoy no constitutional protections. And then the pages Jack points us to, which include "Congress can no more interfere with the President’s conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield." In other words, Congress cannot prohibit any sort of treatment that the president chooses to allow. No wonder Jack Goldsmith thought Yoo was reaching far beyond where he needed to go, not to mention what the state of the law would actually support. And yet he brooks no doubt.
That’s what I said! She continues:
On Page 47 of the Yoo memo, if I’m not mistaken, there’s the amazing assertion that the Convention Against Torture doesn’t apply whenever the president says it doesn’t. "Any presidential decision to order interrogations methods that are inconsistent with CAT would amount to a suspension or termination of those treaty provisions." Doesn’t this mean that whether or not a treaty has been ratified, with or without express reservations, Yoo is saying that the president can implicitly and on his own authority withdraw the United States from the treaty simply by not abiding by it? Is there precedent for such a claim? In my quick scan so far of the tortured (sorry) reasoning here, I can’t find anything other than ipso facto—because I say so, the president says so.
And Marcy Wheeler points out that Yoo’s central argument — that the President (as Commander-in-Chief) can do whatever he wants in wartime — was explicitly rejected in the Youngstown case — and, incredibly –Yoo does not address Youngstown once in his entire memo.
That’s a bad lawyer.