From the NYT:
"When the Justice Department publicly declared torture “abhorrent” in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations.
But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
Mr. Gonzales approved the legal memorandum on “combined effects” over the objections of James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, who was leaving his job after bruising clashes with the White House. Disagreeing with what he viewed as the opinion’s overreaching legal reasoning, Mr. Comey told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it.
Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard.
Here's what we're talking about:
The Bush administration had entered uncharted legal territory beginning in 2002, holding prisoners outside the scrutiny of the International Red Cross and subjecting them to harrowing pressure tactics. They included slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions; or the ultimate, waterboarding.
Never in history had the United States authorized such tactics. While President Bush and C.I.A. officials would later insist that the harsh measures produced crucial intelligence, many veteran interrogators, psychologists and other experts say that less coercive methods are equally or more effective. (...)
Interrogators were worried that even approved techniques had such a painful, multiplying effect when combined that they might cross the legal line, Mr. Kelbaugh said. He recalled agency officers asking: “These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature — can they be combined?” Or “Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?”"
Discussion below the fold.
These techniques are not just morally abhorrent; they are flatly illegal. One might think that since the President is required by the Constitution to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed", this might be a bit of a problem. Not for the Bush administration. First, John Yoo wrote his famous "torture memo", in which he argued that interrogation techniques were illegal only if they produced pain equivalent to organ failure or death. When that memo became public, the administration disowned it. But they also issued another secret opinion reaffirming the legality of the various combinations of techniques described above, and then wrote another secret memo saying that none of the CIA's interrogation techniques constituted "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment.
The techniques in question are repugnant. But in many ways, the administration's disregard for the law is worse. When your policies violate treaties you have signed and laws that are on the books, you are not supposed to come up with some clever way of explaining that appearances to the contrary, what you're doing is not illegal at all. You're supposed to stop doing it. When Congress decides to pass a law banning "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment, you are supposed to stop engaging in such treatment, not to redefine "cruel, inhuman and degrading" so that it doesn't apply to anything you want to do.
The person who wrote the last two of these opinions is Steven Bradbury, who holds a number of, um, unorthodox opinions on the scope of presidential power. Here's one (via TalkLeft):
"Steven Bradbury, acting head of the department's Office of Legal Counsel, went to a closed-door Senate intelligence committee meeting last week to defend President George W. Bush's surveillance program. During the briefing, said administration and Capitol Hill officials (who declined to be identified because the session was private), California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Bradbury questions about the extent of presidential powers to fight Al Qaeda; could Bush, for instance, order the killing of a Qaeda suspect known to be on U.S. soil? Bradbury replied that he believed Bush could indeed do this, at least in certain circumstances."
Maybe he gets this result by arguing that the homicide statutes only apply to the killing of corporate persons, not actual living human beings. That would scarcely be more bizarre than arguing that waterboarding isn't "cruel, inhuman and degrading."
When the head of the DoJ's Office of Legal Counsel delivers a legal opinion, he is supposed to interpret the law fairly, not to provide any argument, however implausible, for the claim that the administration can do whatever it wants to do. The whole point of the "take care" clause of the Constitution is that the President is bound by the laws, not vice versa. And the whole point of having an Office of Legal Counsel is to provide the DoJ with a solid assessment of exactly what the laws require in practice, not to hand out opinions as though they were Get Out Of Jail Free cards.
Jack Balkin writes:
"It is well worth asking how many other secret opinions the Justice Department has produced during the Bush Administration that justified violations of the Constitution, federal statutes, the laws of war, and international human rights."
It is indeed. Who knows what else they might be doing in secret, based on ludicrous legal opinions designed solely to provide people who are breaking the law in the name of our government with legal cover? Does anyone have any confidence that there are limits beyond which this administration would not go? I don't.
For the sake of our democracy, we need to know.
"FEINGOLD: The question here is: What is your view regarding the president's constitutional authority to authorize violations of the criminal law, duly enacted statutes that may have been on the books for many years, when acting as commander in chief? Does he have such authority?
The question you have been asked is not about a hypothetical statute in the future that the president might think is unconstitutional; it's about our laws and international treaty obligations concerning torture.
The torture memo answered that question in the affirmative. And my colleagues and I would like your answer on that today.
And I also would like you to answer this: Does the president, in your opinion, have the authority, acting as commander in chief, to authorize warrantless searches of Americans' homes and wiretaps of their conversations in violation of the criminal and foreign intelligence surveillance statutes of this country?
GONZALES: Senator, the August 30th memo has been withdrawn. It has been rejected, including that section regarding the commander in chief authority to ignore the criminal statutes.
So it's been rejected by the executive branch. I categorically reject it.
And in addition to that, as I've said repeatedly today, this administration does not engage in torture and will not condone torture.
And so what we're really discussing is a hypothetical situation that..."
And, having said that, Gonzales went on to sign memos that allowed the administration to do all the things that memo had allowed, without batting an eye. We are well rid of Gonzales. But undoing the damage he and others in this administration have done to the rule of law and to our institutions will take a lot longer.