Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Judge Bybee Defends His Torture Memo

The New York Times reports that Judge Jay S. Bybee has issued a statement, defending his August 1, 2002  legal memorandum that purported to provide legal cover to the Bush administration for the use of specified torture techniques, including waterboarding:  

Judge Bybee... said: “The central question for lawyers was a narrow one; locate, under the statutory definition, the thin line between harsh treatment of a high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorist that is not torture and harsh treatment that is. I believed at the time, and continue to believe today, that the conclusions were legally correct.”

Other administration lawyers agreed with those conclusions, Judge Bybee said.

“The legal question was and is difficult,” he said. “And the stakes for the country were significant no matter what our opinion. In that context, we gave our best, honest advice, based on our good-faith analysis of the law.”

Andrew Sullivan has responded with a veritable knockout punch:

Let me give a simple small example, helpfully laid out here. Bybee was able to defend waterboarding as non-torture in a legal memo ostensibly providing objective analysis of the case history of the torture technique in the US. Among the obvious precedents for such a decision was the most recent case - when the Reagan administration Justice Department prosecuted a Texas sheriff and his deputies for waterboarding a suspect to get a confession in 1983:

At the trial of the Texas sheriff, Assistant US Attorney Scott Woodward said the prisoners who were subjected to waterboarding were not "model citizens," but they were still "victims" of torture. "We make no bones about it. The victims of these crimes are criminals," Woodward said, according to a copy of the trial transcript. One of the "victims" was Vernell Harkless, who was convicted of burglary in 1977. Gregg Magee, a deputy sheriff who testified against Sheriff Parker and three of the deputies said he witnessed Harkless being handcuffed to a chair by Parker and then getting "the water treatment."

"A towel was draped over his head," Magee said, according to court documents. "He was pulled back in the chair and water was poured over the towel." Harkless said he thought he was "going to be strangled to death," adding: "I couldn't breathe." One of the defendants, Deputy Floyd Allen Baker, said during the trial that he thought torture to be an immoral act, but he was unaware that it was illegal. His attorneys cited the "Nuremberg defense," that Baker was acting on orders from his superiors when he subjected prisoners to waterboarding.

The Reagan Justice Department - back when Republicans opposed torture - did not buy this defense and neither did a jury. They convicted the the deputy on three counts of civil rights and constitutional violations. Now: this case occurred before the UN Convention on Torture went into effect, but any good faith legal memo explaining the history of this particular torture technique would surely have cited it. It's easily findable with Google, let alone with the research resources available to the Office Of Legal Counsel.

I honestly cannot imagine how a serious legal memo with respect to a very rare torture technique would not cite the most recent domestic precedent, finding that it violated the constitution. Can you?

Think Progress reports that Judge Bybee has been asked to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
Today, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) sent a letter to Judge Jay Bybee inviting him to testify about his “views” about torture and his “role” in drafting the torture memos. “There is significant concern about the legal advice provided by OLC while you were in charge, how that advice came to be generated, the considerations that went into it, and the role played by the White House,” Leahy wrote. “I look forward to your cooperation and your testimony.” Read Leahy’s letter (pdf) here.
Meanwhile in Spain, investigations have begun into the torture practices at Guantanamo, according to Associated Press.  Specific focus appears to directed on the Bybee legal memorandum and other "torture memos" prepared for the Bush administration by the Office of Legal Counsel.

MADRID – A Spanish judge opened a probe into the Bush administration over alleged torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, pressing ahead Wednesday with a drive that Spain's own attorney general has said should be waged in the United States, if at all.

Judge Baltasar Garzon, Spain's most prominent investigative magistrate, said he is acting under this country's observance of the principle of universal justice, which allows crimes allegedly committed in other countries to be prosecuted in Spain.

He said documents declassified by the new U.S. government suggest the practice was systematic and ordered at high levels of the US government.

...Now, Garzon is opening a separate, broader probe that does not name any specific suspects but targets "possible material authors" of torture, accomplices and those who gave torture orders.

In a 10-page writ, Garzon said documents on Bush-era treatment of prisoners, recently declassified by the Obama administration, "reveal what had been just an intuition: an authorized and systematic plan of torture and mistreatment of persons denied freedom without any charge whatsoever and without the rights enjoyed by any detainee."

Garzon cited media accounts of the documents and said he would ask the U.S. to send the documents to him.

The judge wrote that abuses at Guantanamo and other U.S. prisons for terror suspects, such as the American air base at Bagram, Afghanistan, suggest "the existence of a concerted plan to carry out a multiplicity of crimes of torture."

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