The National Archives and a watchdog group sent letters to the Justice Department (DOJ) Thursday demanding an investigation into the destruction of John Yoo's emails in the summer of 2002, when he and other government attorneys prepared and finalized legal memoranda for the CIA that redefined torture and authorized interrogators to brutalize war on terror detainees.
The Federal Records Act (FRA) requires the preservation of government documents. Records cannot be destroyed unless approved by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). According to the DOJ's web site, emails fall under FRA if they pertain to government business.
Last week, the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) released a long-awaited report into the legal work former Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) attorneys Yoo and Jay Bybee did for the Bush administration on torture. Yoo currently works as a law professor at UC Berkeley and Bybee received a lifetime appointment as a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Legal opinions written by Yoo in August 2002 and signed by Bybee cleared the way for the Bush administration to subject detainees to the near drowning of waterboarding and other brutal treatment at the hands of CIA interrogators.
Waterboarding and some of the other interrogation techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration, such as slamming detainees against walls and depriving them of sleep, have long been considered acts of torture and have been treated and prosecuted as war crimes. However, Yoo - working closely with Bush administration officials - claimed that the techniques did not violate US criminal laws and international treaties forbidding torture.
Further, Yoo asserted that Bush's presidential powers were virtually unlimited in wartime, even a conflict as vaguely defined as the war on terror.
But Yoo, the report concluded, was found to have "committed intentional professional misconduct when he violated his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective, and candid legal advice."
Bybee was found to have "committed professional misconduct when he acted in reckless disregard of his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective, and candid legal advice." OPR investigators deemed this to be a violation of "professional standards" and recommended that Yoo and Bybee be referred to state bar associations where they could have had their law licenses revoked. Career prosecutor David Margolis, however, downgraded the criticism to "poor judgment," which means the DOJ now won't make the referral.
The voluminous report noted, however, that while OPR investigtors were initially provided us with a relatively small number of emails, files, and draft documents," it became "apparent, during the course of our review, that relevant documents were missing..."
OPR "requested and were given direct access to the email and computer records of REDACTED, Yoo, [Deputy Assistant Attorney General Patrick] Philbin, Bybee, and [fomer OLC head Jack] Goldsmith" during the course of the investigation into the creation of the torture memos. But OPR investigators said their probe was "hampered by the loss of Yoo's and Philbin's email records."
OPR investigators said they were told that most of "Yoo's email records" as well as "Philbin's email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002 - the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo ... was created" were deleted and "reportedly" not recoverable. The deleted emails also included other relevant documents the OPR needed to assist its investigation.
In a letter sent Thursday to Jeanette Plante at the DOJ's Office of Records and Management Policy, Paul Wester, director of the Archives' modern record program, said, in accordance with federal rules governing the preservation of records, if the "DOJ determines that an unauthorized destruction has occurred, then DOJ needs to submit a report to the [National Archives and Records Administration ..."
Wester requested a response within 30 days. A DOJ spokesperson was unavailable for comment.
The destruction of Yoo's and Philbin's emails also caught the attention of watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which had waged a years-long legal battle with the Bush administration over its destruction of tens of millions of emails and failed efforts to take steps to recover the documents and preserve others.
Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said Thursday, "given the disappearance of millions of Bush White House emails, we shouldn't be surprised that crucial emails also disappeared from the Bush Justice Department."
"The question now is what is the Attorney General going to do about it?" she said.