White House dumps Dawn Johnsen

Dawn Johnsen withdrew her nomination yesterday for head of the Office of Legal Counsel, saying in a statement,

Restoring OLC to its best nonpartisan traditions was my primary objective for my anticipated service in this administration. Unfortunately, my nomination has met with lengthy delays and political opposition that threaten that objective and prevent OLC from functioning at full strength. I hope that the withdrawal of my nomination will allow this important office to be filled promptly.

Sam Stein posted the full text of Johnsen's statement and commented,

The withdrawal represents a major blow to progressive groups and civil liberties advocates who had pushed for Johnsen to end up in the office that previously housed, among others, John Yoo, the author of the infamous torture memos under George W. Bush.

But the votes, apparently, weren't there. Johnsen had the support of Sen Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) but was regarded skeptically by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) -- primarily for her positions on torture and the investigation of previous administration actions. A filibuster, in the end, was likely sustainable. Faced with this calculus, the White House chose not to appoint Johnsen during Senate recess, which would have circumvented a likely filibuster but would have kept her in the position for less than two years.

A White House statement said the president is searching for a replacement nominee and will ask the Senate to confirm that person to head the Office of Legal Counsel quickly. I still think the Obama should have included Johnsen in a group of recess appointments he made last month. Jake Tapper quoted an unnamed Senate source as saying the White House "didn't have the stomach for the debate" on her nomination. It doesn't reflect well on Obama or on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that Johnsen never got a vote in the Senate, even after it was clear there were 60 votes in her favor last year (before the Massachusetts Senate special election).

UPDATE: From a must-read post by Glenn Greenwald:

What Johnsen insists must not be done reads like a manual of what Barack Obama ended up doing and continues to do -- from supporting retroactive immunity to terminate FISA litigations to endless assertions of "state secrecy" in order to block courts from adjudicating Bush crimes to suppressing torture photos on the ground that "opennees will empower terrorists" to the overarching Obama dictate that we "simply move on." Could she have described any more perfectly what Obama would end up doing when she wrote, in March, 2008, what the next President "must not do"? [...]I don't know why her nomination was left to die, but I do know that her beliefs are quite antithetical to what this administration is doing.

Pressure Mounts on DOJ to Produce Missing E-Mails

The pressure is growing on the Justice Department to produce supposedly "deleted" e-mails that could reveal whether government lawyers during the Bush administration were instructed to devise legal justifications for torture.

These are, as I noted last week, most of John Yoo's e-mails, and a chunk of those of his colleague Patrick Philbin at precisely the time that Philbin was involved in reviewing two of the controversial Office of Legal Counsel memos approving torture, stress positions, prolonged sleep deprivation and other abusive interrogation techniques. As the Office of Professional Responsibility pointed out in its final report on the lawyers' ethical obligations, those e-mails were all oddly deleted and unretrievable.

So far, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the National Archives, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and The New York Times have called on DOJ to find and produce the e-mails or lauunch a criminal investigation if they were indeed destroyed.

Then on Monday, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) took a different tack; he called on the the National Archives to produce the White House side of those missing e-mails, since those are presidential records that must be retained under the Presidential Records Act.

Over the weekend, John Yoo, while railing at the "incompetence" of the OPR, which was "obviously biased" and "selectively tried to persecute only a few officials" in the OLC (they should have gone after the whole Justice Department, apparently), denies that OPR didn't have his e-mails and adds that in any event, the Justice Department's e-mail system is unclassified and so couldn't be used to discuss interrogation techniques that were "classified at the highest levels of secrecy."

Of course, discussions between Yoo and the White House or CIA about the memos he was writing didn't necessarily have to contain classified information in them for them to reveal whether senior officials were instructing Yoo to find a justification for breaking the law. In fact, many e-mails referenced in the report related to the memos were not classified, asMarcy Wheeler pointed out on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the National Security Administration, as it notes on its website, provides "security configuration guides" for government agencies to help them transmit classified material electronically. So whether it was through his DOJ e-mail or another government e-mail address, Yoo was almost certainly able to send classified material to his "clients" - the White House and the CIA -- by e-mail.

There doesn't appear to be any real question that Yoo was required to retain those e-mails. As CREW wrote in its letter, the Federal Records Act requires the preservation of government documents. Over the weekend, Jason Leopold pointed out on Truthout that the DOJ's web site explains that an e-mail is probably a federal record that must be preserved if it documents "agreements reached in meetings, telephone conversations, or other E-mail exchanges on substantive matters relating to business processes or activities; Provides comments on or objections to the language on drafts of policy statements or action plans; or Supplements information in official files and/or adds to a complete understanding of office operations and responsibilities." The DOJ rules also say that "the unlawful removal or destruction of federal records" can result in "criminal or civil penalties, fines and/or imprisonment."

Even if Justice refuses to further investigate whether high-level officials in the former administration broke the law, it may feel some pressure to at least investigate whether a DOJ attorney broke the DOJ's own rules - which may turn out to be an attempt to cover up some much more serious lawbreaking.

What We Need to Hear About the Torture Report

At 10 a.m. on Friday, February 26, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on theOffice of Professional Responsibility's investigation into the Justice Department memos that authorized the torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the Bush administration.

That's a good start for a committee that's closely followed this issue, but it should be just the beginning.

Human Rights First will be attending and blogging on the hearing. We'll also be answering readers' questions about the report, the Senate hearing, and the various ways of holding accountable the government officials who participated in plans to interrogate prisoners using torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

So far, the only witness scheduled to testify at that hearing is Gary G. Grindler, the Acting Deputy Attorney General who's temporarily replaced David Ogden, the senior DOJ official who resigned in December.

Given that the OPR report found that Office of Legal Counsel lawyers deliberately or "recklessly" twisted the law to justify the use of interrogation techniques that amounted to torture, the Justice Department now has strong evidence of a criminal conspiracy. But we need to know more, and we hope the Senators on the Judiciary Committee tomorrow will be asking the right questions.

Here are some questions we'd like to put to the Justice Department, and to the Committee:

1) Where will the Justice Department take this investigation from here? What are the next steps?

2) The OPR said its investigation was hampered by the mysterious disappearance of John Yoo's e-mails, as well as those of his colleague, Patrick Philbin. The FBI has the technology necessary to recover deleted emails. Will the Justice Department employ that technology?

3) The disappearance of Yoo's and Philbin's e-mails are more than just suspicious. It may amount to a deliberate obstruction of justice. Will DOJ investigate when and why the messages were deleted, and whether their deletion amounts to a crime?

4) In addition to the missing e-mails, the OPR investigators noted that many key witnesses "declined" to speak with OPR, seriously limiting its investigation. Witnesses who refused to speak to investigators included every former White House official except Alberto Gonzales, and almost all of the CIA attorneys. CIA records also were not available. Only by collecting all of this relevant evidence can we know what instructions White House and CIA officials gave to the OLC lawyers, and whether the lawyers were told to draft legal justifications for what both lawyer and client knew was criminal conduct. Will DOJ use its subpoena power to require those witnesses to provide testimony and relevant records?

5) The Justice Department has so far suggested that it will not criminally investigate the conduct of any senior officials or lawyers in the prior administration. Will the Senate Judiciary Committee schedule further hearings of its own to find the answers to these questions?

6) Some lawmakers have proposed an independent, nonpartisan "Commission of Inquiry" to investigate how the U.S. came to abuse and torture detainees. A commission could go a long way toward revealing what really happened and making concrete recommendations to keep it from happening again. Will the Justice Department and Senate Judiciary Committee support creating a commission to ensure that we learn from our past mistakes?

Please suggest any more questions you'd like to see answered, and follow up with any questions for us after the hearing!

The OPR Report Is Only the Beginning

In reporting on the long-delayed release of the Justice Department's ethics report on the work of Bush administration lawyers who approved the torture of detainees, The New York Timeson Saturday wrote that it "brings to a close a pivotal chapter in the debate over the legal limits of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and whether its treatment of Qaeda prisoners amounted to torture."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said the report represents "the end of a 5-year internal battle" at the Justice Department.

In fact, the Office of Professional Responsibility report is just the beginning of a bigger and more important battle. Legal ethics investigators concluded that former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee committed "professional misconduct" in advising the Bush administration that it was not against the law to torture, humiliate and abuse detainees despite longstanding domestic and international prohibitions against doing so. The battle now will be over whether the U.S. government will meet its obligations to thoroughly investigate what happened and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The final OPR report chastises the two OLC lawyers for reaching bizarre legal conclusions that were wholly unsupported by the law. For example, one of their memos claimed that torture was legal so long as an interrogator's goal was to obtain information rather than to inflict severe pain or suffering - even if he knew he would inflict severe pain or suffering in the process. As one OLC lawyer commented on the memo at the time: "The way it reads now makes you wonder whether this is just an anti-sadism statute."

Meanwhile, the memo's now-infamous definition of "severe pain" as necessarily "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" not only relied on an irrelevant medical benefits statute for its definition, which the OPR report calls "illogical," but actually misquoted the language of that statute so as "to add further support to their 'aggressive' interpretation of the torture statute," the OPR report concludes. Ultimately, the definition could lead an interrogator to believe, the OPR found, "that pain could be inflicted as long as no injury resulted." It's the "leave no marks" theory of torture.

The list of twisted and inexplicable legal conclusions is long and impressive. In another instance, the lawyers relied on extremely narrow interpretations of the international Convention Against Torture proposed by the Reagan administration that the U.S. had never adopted. And they completely ignored far more relevant sources of law on torture, such as federal court cases interpreting the Torture Victims Protection Act, which found torture had occurred in situations far less severe than the brutal interrogation techniques being contemplated in these memos. In one case, for example, a federal court held that imprisonment for five days under bad conditions while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated and held at gunpoint amounted to torture.

David Margolis, the Deputy Associate Attorney General ultimately overrode the recommendations of the ethics office to refer the lawyers to state bar associations for disciplinary proceedings, because he decided that the OLC's standards for referral were unclear. But the report of the investigators who actually read and analyzed the memos that authorized such brutal conduct as "waterboarding" (controlled drowning), slamming prisoners' heads repeatedly against a wall ("walling"), weeks of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and confinement in a cramped box with insects provides an astonishing look at how the lawyers tasked with providing objective legal advice to the White House on its most sensitive policies completely contorted ordinary logic and legal reasoning to reach the conclusions desired.

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin at one point asked John Yoo why he included a wholly unsubstantiated section in one of the memos that concluded that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, can completely ignore any law he wanted - such as the prohibition against torture. Yoo said it was in the memo because "they want it in there" -- "they" presumably being whoever had requested the opinion. The memo never explained how the prohibition against torture could be construed in any reasonable way so as to conflict with the president's authority as commander in chief.

Whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee face professional sanctions (that's now up to their respective state bars) is far less important than whether we get to the bottom of what really happened at the Bush White House: who ordered these lawyers to come up with legal reasoning to justify torture? The OPR report suggests that David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, played a significant role. Who was he getting his orders from?

The OPR report is just another piece of the slowly-emerging puzzle of how the country plunged into what Dick Cheney has aptly called "the Dark Side," abandoning its most basic belief in human dignity and the rule of law to zealously combat terrorism in a way that's ultimately backfired; we're now less safe, and mired in a vicious and protracted war.

In concluding that Yoo and Bybee exercised "poor judgment" rather than "professional misconduct", Margolis emphasizes that "his decision should not be viewed as an endorsement of the legal work that underlies these memoranda," which he notes were "seriously flawed" and represent "an unfortunate chapter in the history of the Office of Legal Counsel." In Yoo's case, his conclusions represented a "loyalty to his own ideology and convictions" which "clouded his view of his obligations to his client" and led him to author opinions reflecting "extreme" views of executive power.

Yoo was among the very small group of lawyers entrusted to write these opinions for the White House because he was already known to hold these extreme opinions. That he ignored or contorted opposing views should not have come as a surprise to his employers; that's what he'd been doing all along as an academic.

It's clear from the report, too, that that's what Yoo was expected to do. As John Bellinger, the Bush administration's legal advisor to the State Department told OPR: "Yoo was 'under pretty significant pressure to come up with an answer that would justify [the program]' and that, over time, there was significant pressure on the Department to conclude that the program was legal and could be continued, even after changes in the law in 2005 and 2006."

Some of those memos were also being demanded under very tight time frames to justify particular interrogations.

So who asked Yoo and Bybee to write these memos, and what exactly were the instructions given? Were they pressured to reach a particular conclusion and provide a "golden shield" for illegal conduct that the White House had already chosen to undertake? The report points out that the OPR investigators were not able to access most of John Yoo's e-mail messages from the time period: "most of Yoo's e-mail records had been deleted and were not recoverable." Why did Yoo delete those messages, and what did they say?

Even Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Bush, read the memos to ultimately function as a "blank check" for the military to engage in illegal and unauthorized interrogation techniques. If that's the case, then not only the lawyers but the officials who instructed them could be guilty of a criminal conspiracy.

The OPR report, then, hardly ends this chapter of history; it only begins to open the book. Before we can really reach the end of this sad saga and put it to rest, we need to know much more.

 

 

 

 

 

The OPR Report Is Only the Beginning

In reporting on the long-delayed release of the Justice Department's ethics report on the work of Bush administration lawyers who approved the torture of detainees, The New York Timeson Saturday wrote that it "brings to a close a pivotal chapter in the debate over the legal limits of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and whether its treatment of Qaeda prisoners amounted to torture."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said the report represents "the end of a 5-year internal battle" at the Justice Department.

In fact, the Office of Professional Responsibility report is just the beginning of a bigger and more important battle. Legal ethics investigators concluded that former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee committed "professional misconduct" in advising the Bush administration that it was not against the law to torture, humiliate and abuse detainees despite longstanding domestic and international prohibitions against doing so. The battle now will be over whether the U.S. government will meet its obligations to thoroughly investigate what happened and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The final OPR report chastises the two OLC lawyers for reaching bizarre legal conclusions that were wholly unsupported by the law. For example, one of their memos claimed that torture was legal so long as an interrogator's goal was to obtain information rather than to inflict severe pain or suffering - even if he knew he would inflict severe pain or suffering in the process. As one OLC lawyer commented on the memo at the time: "The way it reads now makes you wonder whether this is just an anti-sadism statute."

Meanwhile, the memo's now-infamous definition of "severe pain" as necessarily "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" not only relied on an irrelevant medical benefits statute for its definition, which the OPR report calls "illogical," but actually misquoted the language of that statute so as "to add further support to their 'aggressive' interpretation of the torture statute," the OPR report concludes. Ultimately, the definition could lead an interrogator to believe, the OPR found, "that pain could be inflicted as long as no injury resulted." It's the "leave no marks" theory of torture.

The list of twisted and inexplicable legal conclusions is long and impressive. In another instance, the lawyers relied on extremely narrow interpretations of the international Convention Against Torture proposed by the Reagan administration that the U.S. had never adopted. And they completely ignored far more relevant sources of law on torture, such as federal court cases interpreting the Torture Victims Protection Act, which found torture had occurred in situations far less severe than the brutal interrogation techniques being contemplated in these memos. In one case, for example, a federal court held that imprisonment for five days under bad conditions while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated and held at gunpoint amounted to torture.

David Margolis, the Deputy Associate Attorney General ultimately overrode the recommendations of the ethics office to refer the lawyers to state bar associations for disciplinary proceedings, because he decided that the OLC's standards for referral were unclear. But the report of the investigators who actually read and analyzed the memos that authorized such brutal conduct as "waterboarding" (controlled drowning), slamming prisoners' heads repeatedly against a wall ("walling"), weeks of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and confinement in a cramped box with insects provides an astonishing look at how the lawyers tasked with providing objective legal advice to the White House on its most sensitive policies completely contorted ordinary logic and legal reasoning to reach the conclusions desired.

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin at one point asked John Yoo why he included a wholly unsubstantiated section in one of the memos that concluded that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, can completely ignore any law he wanted - such as the prohibition against torture. Yoo said it was in the memo because "they want it in there" -- "they" presumably being whoever had requested the opinion. The memo never explained how the prohibition against torture could be construed in any reasonable way so as to conflict with the president's authority as commander in chief.

Whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee face professional sanctions (that's now up to their respective state bars) is far less important than whether we get to the bottom of what really happened at the Bush White House: who ordered these lawyers to come up with legal reasoning to justify torture? The OPR report suggests that David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, played a significant role. Who was he getting his orders from?

The OPR report is just another piece of the slowly-emerging puzzle of how the country plunged into what Dick Cheney has aptly called "the Dark Side," abandoning its most basic belief in human dignity and the rule of law to zealously combat terrorism in a way that's ultimately backfired; we're now less safe, and mired in a vicious and protracted war.

In concluding that Yoo and Bybee exercised "poor judgment" rather than "professional misconduct", Margolis emphasizes that "his decision should not be viewed as an endorsement of the legal work that underlies these memoranda," which he notes were "seriously flawed" and represent "an unfortunate chapter in the history of the Office of Legal Counsel." In Yoo's case, his conclusions represented a "loyalty to his own ideology and convictions" which "clouded his view of his obligations to his client" and led him to author opinions reflecting "extreme" views of executive power.

Yoo was among the very small group of lawyers entrusted to write these opinions for the White House because he was already known to hold these extreme opinions. That he ignored or contorted opposing views should not have come as a surprise to his employers; that's what he'd been doing all along as an academic.

It's clear from the report, too, that that's what Yoo was expected to do. As John Bellinger, the Bush administration's legal advisor to the State Department told OPR: "Yoo was 'under pretty significant pressure to come up with an answer that would justify [the program]' and that, over time, there was significant pressure on the Department to conclude that the program was legal and could be continued, even after changes in the law in 2005 and 2006."

Some of those memos were also being demanded under very tight time frames to justify particular interrogations.

So who asked Yoo and Bybee to write these memos, and what exactly were the instructions given? Were they pressured to reach a particular conclusion and provide a "golden shield" for illegal conduct that the White House had already chosen to undertake? The report points out that the OPR investigators were not able to access most of John Yoo's e-mail messages from the time period: "most of Yoo's e-mail records had been deleted and were not recoverable." Why did Yoo delete those messages, and what did they say?

Even Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Bush, read the memos to ultimately function as a "blank check" for the military to engage in illegal and unauthorized interrogation techniques. If that's the case, then not only the lawyers but the officials who instructed them could be guilty of a criminal conspiracy.

The OPR report, then, hardly ends this chapter of history; it only begins to open the book. Before we can really reach the end of this sad saga and put it to rest, we need to know much more.

 

 

 

 

 

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