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Secret "Torture Memo" Gave Legal Cover to Interrogators Who Acted in "Good Faith"

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Also published at my webmagazine, The Public Record.

A Justice Department legal opinion issued in August 2002 advised the CIA that its interrogators would not be prosecuted for violating anti-torture laws as long as they acted in “good faith” while using brutal techniques to obtain information from suspected terrorists, according to a previously undisclosed memo released publicly Thursday.

The closely guarded Aug. 1, 2002 memo provided the Bush administration with the legal framework to use “alternative interrogation methods” against suspected terrorists captured in the war on terror.

The heavily redacted document, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request, was signed by then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and specifically outlined approved methods the CIA could use, such as waterboarding, during interrogations. Waterboarding has been regarded as torture since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

“To validate the statute, an individual must have the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering," the Aug. 1, 2002 memo says. "Because specific intent is an element of the offense, the absence of specific intent negates the charge of torture.”

The Bybee memo was written by John Yoo, a former deputy attorney general at the OLC. It is one of two legal opinions written in August 2002 about CIA interrogation methods. Both memos were later rescinded.

The Aug. 1, 2002 legal opinion was based on a statute governing health benefits when he provided the White House with a legal opinion defining torture, according to a former Justice Department official.

Yoo's legal opinion stated that unless the amount of pain administered to a detainee results in injury "such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions" than the interrogation technique could not be defined as torture.
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Waterboarding, a brutal and painful technique in which a prisoner believes he is drowning, Yoo wrote, therefore was not considered to be torture.

"That statute defined an ‘emergency medical condition’ that warranted certain health benefits as a condition ‘manifesting itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain)’ such that the absence of immediate medical care might reasonably be thought to result in death, organ failure, or impairment of bodily function," Jack Goldsmith, the former head of OLC, wrote in his book, The Terror Presidency

"The health benefits statute's use of ‘severe pain’ had no relationship whatsoever to the torture statute. And even if it did, the health benefit statute did not define ‘severe pain.’ Rather it used the term ‘severe pain’ as a sign of an emergency medical condition that, if not treated, might cause organ failure and the like.... OLC’s clumsily definitional arbitrage didn't seem even in the ballpark."

Yoo, who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, also drafted a March 14, 2003 document, nearly identical to the August 2002 memo he authored, that essentially provided military interrogators with legal cover if they resorted to brutal and violent methods to extract information from prisoners. The ACLU under a FOIA request also obtained that document earlier this year.

"If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network," Yoo wrote in the March 14, 2003 opinion.
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"In that case, we believe that he could argue that the Executive Branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions."

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) launched a formal investigation to determine whether agency attorneys, including Yoo and Bybee, provided the White House with poor legal advice when it drafted the legal opinions. In a Feb. 18, letter sent to Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who requested the probe, H. Marshall Jarrett, the head of OPR, said his office intends to question Yoo, and his former boss, Jay Bybee, the former head of OLC, now a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco, who signed the “torture memo.”

"Among other issues, we are examining whether the legal advice contained in those memoranda was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys," Jarrett's letter says, adding that his office may release the findings of the investigation publicly.

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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of Truthout.org and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, http://www.pubrecord.org. He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)
 

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