07
Oct
07

Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations

“We are likely to hear the words: ‘If we don’t do this, people will die,’” Mr. Comey said. But he argued that government lawyers must uphold the principles of their great institutions.

“It takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say ‘no’ when it matters most,” he said. “It takes moral character. It takes an understanding that in the long run, intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country.”

Mr. Gonzales’s aides were happy to see Mr. Comey depart in the summer of 2005. That June, President Bush nominated Mr. Bradbury to head the Office of Legal Counsel, which some colleagues viewed as a sign that he had passed a loyalty test.

Soon Mr. Bradbury applied his practical approach to a new challenge to the C.I.A.’s methods.

The administration had always asserted that the C.I.A.’s pressure tactics did not amount to torture, which is banned by federal law and international treaty. But officials had privately decided the agency did not have to comply with another provision in the Convention Against Torture — the prohibition on “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment.

Now that loophole was about to be closed. First Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and then Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who had been tortured as a prisoner in North Vietnam, proposed legislation to ban such treatment.

At the administration’s request, Mr. Bradbury assessed whether the proposed legislation would outlaw any C.I.A. methods, a legal question that had never before been answered by the Justice Department.

At least a few administration officials argued that no reasonable interpretation of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” would permit the most extreme C.I.A. methods, like waterboarding. Mr. Bradbury was placed in a tough spot, said Mr. Zelikow, the State Department counselor, who was working at the time to rein in interrogation policy.

“If Justice says some practices are in violation of the C.I.D. standard,” Mr. Zelikow said, referring to cruel, inhuman or degrading, “then they are now saying that officials broke current law.”

In the end, Mr. Bradbury’s opinion delivered what the White House wanted: a statement that the standard imposed by Mr. McCain’s Detainee Treatment Act would not force any change in the C.I.A.’s practices, according to officials familiar with the memo.

Relying on a Supreme Court finding that only conduct that “shocks the conscience” was unconstitutional, the opinion found that in some circumstances not even waterboarding was necessarily cruel, inhuman or degrading, if, for example, a suspect was believed to possess crucial intelligence about a planned terrorist attack, the officials familiar with the legal finding said.

In a frequent practice, Mr. Bush attached a statement to the new law when he signed it, declaring his authority to set aside the restrictions if they interfered with his constitutional powers. At the same time, though, the administration responded to pressure from Mr. McCain and other lawmakers by reviewing interrogation policy and giving up several C.I.A. techniques.

Since late 2005, Mr. Bradbury has become a linchpin of the administration’s defense of counterterrorism programs, helping to negotiate the Military Commissions Act last year and frequently testifying about the N.S.A. surveillance program. Once he answered questions about administration detention policies for an “Ask the White House” feature on a Web site.

Mr. Kmiec, the former Office of Legal Counsel head now at Pepperdine, called Mr. Bradbury’s public activities a departure for an office that traditionally has shunned any advocacy role.

A senior administration official called Mr. Bradbury’s active role in shaping legislation and speaking to Congress and the press “entirely appropriate” and consistent with past practice. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Bradbury “has played a critical role in achieving greater transparency” on the legal basis for detention and surveillance programs.

Though President Bush repeatedly nominated Mr. Bradbury as the Office of Legal Counsel’s assistant attorney general, Democratic senators have blocked the nomination. Senator Durbin said the Justice Department would not turn over copies of his opinions or other evidence of Mr. Bradbury’s role in interrogation policy.

“There are fundamental questions about whether Mr. Bradbury approved interrogation methods that are clearly unacceptable,” Mr. Durbin said.

John D. Hutson, who served as the Navy’s top lawyer from 1997 to 2000, said he believed that the existence of legal opinions justifying abusive treatment is pernicious, potentially blurring the rules for Americans handling prisoners.

“I know from the military that if you tell someone they can do a little of this for the country’s good, some people will do a lot of it for the country’s better,” Mr. Hutson said. Like other military lawyers, he also fears that official American acceptance of such treatment could endanger Americans in the future.

“The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?” he asked.

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