George W. Bush's White House stage-managed the Justice Department's approval of torture techniques by putting pliable lawyers in key jobs, guiding their opinions and punishing officials who wouldn't go along, according to details contained in an internal report that recommended disciplinary action against two lawyers.
Though the recently released report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility concentrated on whether lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee deserved punishment for drafting and signing 2002 memos that permitted brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists, the report also revealed how the White House pulled the strings of Yoo, Bybee and others.
The report puts into sharper focus what former Vice President Dick Cheney meant when he told an ABC News interviewer on Feb. 14 that he has spoken out loudly against the Obama administration's revised counter-terrorism policies to disrupt possible punishments of Yoo, Bybee and CIA interrogators.
"I thought it was important for some senior person in the administration to stand up and defend those people who'd done what we asked them to do," Cheney said.
A little-noticed subplot in the OPR's 289-page report was how the Bush administration got the legal opinions that it wanted from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the President and the Executive Branch on the limits of their legal powers.
An important first step for the White House was to make sure that the work on legal opinions regarding harsh interrogations was done by a lawyer like Yoo who already held extreme views on the powers of a President during wartime.
Even then, however, the White House did not leave it to Yoo to decide what limits should be put on the CIA's interrogation techniques or what parameters should circumscribe President Bush's power during the "war on terror."
For instance, John Bellinger, a lawyer at the National Security Council, told the OPR that Yoo was "under pretty significant pressure to come up with an answer that would justify" the interrogation program.
Yoo also shared drafts of his opinion with White House officials and received suggestions on how to revise it. On July 10, 2002, Yoo told a colleague via e-mail that "we're going over to visit with the NSC at 10:45 on Friday [July 12, 2002] " and give them at that time our draft of the opinion to comment on."
The title of that draft was the "bad things opinion," reflecting what "bad things" could be done to terror suspects in U.S. custody.
On that Friday, Yoo met with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and, apparently, Cheney's legal counsel David Addington, who was known as a fellow hardliner on presidential power, the OPR report said. Another meeting was held at the White House the following Tuesday, July 16.
Expanding Bush's Power
After those meetings, Yoo and his OLC associates added two new sections relating to how presidential power could override the anti-torture statutes and what possible defenses could be used by CIA interrogators who exceeded official guidelines.
Yoo claimed the two sections were added because of internal OLC conversations that he had with his OLC boss, Bybee, and another assistant Patrick Philbin. However, Philbin said he told Yoo that the two sections were superfluous and should be removed.
"According to Philbin, Yoo responded, "They want it in there.' Philbin did not know who "they' referred to and did not inquire; rather, he assumed that it was whoever had requested the opinion," the OPR report said.
Bybee also had no recollection of suggesting the two sections, though he defended their inclusion as justified "if the client requested the analysis."
Alberto Gonzales "speculated that because David Addington had strong views on the Commander-in-Chief power, he may have played a role in developing that argument," the OPR report said.