June 26, 2008

John Yoo, David Addington Stonewall Congress

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Today the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties continued its investigation into the role played by key administration lawyers in the development of aggressive interrogation techniques. This was the third hearing of this subcommittee on this topic. The witnesses who testified were former Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo; Cheney’s former legal counsel and now chief of staff, David Addington; and Christopher Schroeder, professor at Duke Law School.

NLG President Marjorie Cohn had testified at the first subcommittee hearing on May 6, articulating the law of torture, and stating that torture is never allowed under U.S. law. Today’s hearing was attended by Jeanne Mirer, co-chair of the NLG’s International Committee.

Yoo’s testimony revealed that the guiding principle of his work at the Justice Department was his belief in the overriding power of the President to order anything he thinks necessary in the “war on terror.” When specifically asked, “Is there anything that the President cannot order?” Yoo answered “I believe there are things an American President WOULD not order.” He was asked again, “Are there things the President COULD not order?” Yoo replied that he would “have to know the context.” Dan Mayfield from the NLG Military Law Task Force stated, “This is consistent with Yoo’s previous statement that the President could order torture of a person up to and including the crushing of the testicles of a person’s son in order to make the person talk.” When asked whether a President could order that someone be buried alive, Yoo’s answer was non-responsive: “No American president would ever have to order that,” he said.

While Yoo claimed there was little in the law which helped to define torture, Shroeder pointed out the wealth of guidance that exists in the areas of asylum and immigration law. Yoo admitted that the Convention Against Torture and the U.S. Torture Statute both define torture. Yet he wrote his memos to re-define torture so that those following his re-definition could state, “We do not torture.” Marjorie Cohn said, “Yoo’s memos so vastly narrowed the definition of torture, the interrogator would nearly have to kill someone for it to constitute torture.”

Yoo and Addington were evasive, repeatedly stonewalling members of the subcommittee. The Justice Department evidently placed limitations on what Yoo was allowed to discuss, but he invoked privileges where it did not appear privilege was authorized. This led to Yoo’s refusal to answer several direct questions. Jeanne Mirer stated, “The evasiveness of Yoo and Addington did not earn them credibility with the subcommittee, and frustrated many of the questioners. These tactics prevented the subcommittee from getting answers to the many important questions about the source of legal authority for the positions espoused in the ‘torture memos’ regarding aggressive interrogation techniques.”

The NLG has decried the use of torture techniques as well as efforts by lawyers to try to justify them. The NLG has called for holding accountable those who violated the law. While these hearings have helped to establish the record, there is a need for a full blown investigation which could lead to a call for criminal prosecution. The NLG calls for the appointment of an independent special prosecutor, and the establishment of a congressionally appointed commission to investigate potential wrongdoing, including the commission of war crimes, by high officials and lawyers of the Bush administration.