US Justice Department clears torture memo authors

(RAW STORY)   Two top Bush-era lawyers who authorized waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics exercised “poor judgment” but should not be disbarred, an internal Justice Department review showed.

An initial investigation by the department’s ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility, found that Jay Bybee and John Yoo engaged in “professional misconduct,” a finding that could have stripped them of their law licenses.

But the agency’s top career lawyer overruled the recommendations and concluded instead that while the controversial memos were “flawed,” the pair did not act recklessly or knowingly provide incorrect advice, and thus should not be referred to state bar associations for disbarment or face criminal punishment.

“These memos contained significant flaws,” Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis wrote in a 69-page memo dated January 5 and released Friday.

“But as all that glitters is not gold, all flaws do not constitute professional misconduct…. I conclude that Yoo and Bybee exercised poor judgment by overstating the certainty of their conclusions and underexposing countervailing arguments.”

The long-awaited and repeatedly delayed release of the final report by the ethics unit, which capped a two-year review, was hundreds of pages long and included emails exchanged between the Justice Department, the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency. It was dated July 29.

It also cleared Steven Bradbury, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel where Yoo and Bybee worked.

Together, they followed a broad interpretation of executive power in outlining the legal standards for interrogations of top terror suspects and providing the legal justification for the methods used.

The report criticized former attorney general John Ashcroft, then-chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division Michael Chertoff and others for not critically examining the memos or recognizing the documents’ shortcomings. But it did not cite the officials for misconduct.

In April, President Barack Obama’s administration released four partially blacked out memos authored by government lawyers at the height of his predecessor George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”

The documents blew the lid on harsh CIA terror interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration, including waterboarding — a simulated drowning method — sleep deprivation and the use of insects.

The lawyers argued that a long list of coercive techniques did not equal torture as they did not amount to inflicting severe mental or physical pain.

Obama has faced criticism across the political spectrum over the issue, with rights groups and some fellow Democrats demanding prompt prosecution of former Bush administration officials and conservatives charging the release of the memos endangered national security.

Decrying the abuses of terror suspects in US custody as “a blight on our national honor,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said the report “makes plain that those memos were legally flawed and fundamentally unsound.”

The Michigan Democrat said in a statement that the lawyers “dishonored their office and the entire Department of Justice.” His panel plans to hold a hearing on the matter “shortly.”

The top Republican on his committee, Lamar Smith, countered that Yoo and Bybee “did their best to follow the law.”

“In the wake of 9/11, attorneys at the Justice Department were faced with unprecedented challenges, not knowing whether other attacks were imminent,” he added.

Rights groups did not let up on their pressure for the Obama administration to prosecute those responsible for interrogation techniques widely considered torture.

“Justice Department lawyers have an obligation to uphold the law, so when they write legal opinions that were designed to provide legal cover for torture, they need to be held accountable with more than a slap on the wrist,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch.

Jameel Jaffer, who heads the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, called on the Justice Department to expand its investigation into the interrogation practices.

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