Report: Bush Lawyers Guilty Only Of Poor Judgment

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A report more than 6 years in the making has finally become public. A Justice Department investigation found that Bush administration lawyers exercised "poor professional judgment" when they wrote memos authorizing harsh interrogations for terrorism detainees. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation has found that Bush administration lawyers exercised poor professional judgment. They wrote memos authorizing harsh interrogations for terrorism detainees.

NPRs Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The Office of Legal Counsel used to be little known outside of legal government circles. Lawyers there advised the rest of the executive branch on whats legal and whats not. After 9/11, OLC became vitally important. The White House and CIA asked lawyers there to define torture and the resulting memos allowed terrorism detainees to be stripped naked, slapped, waterboarded and more. A few years later, President Bush appointed new attorneys to the office who withdrew the memos, which is extremely rare. Halfway through the Bush administration, the Justice Departments Office of Professional Responsibility began looking into whether the men who wrote the torture memos had violated professional legal ethics.

Theyve focused on three OLC lawyers - Jay Bybee, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury. Some key witnesses would not cooperate with the investigation. Former attorney general John Ashcroft refused to be interviewed. Most of John Yoos emails had been deleted and were unrecoverable. But after four years of digging, investigators concluded that two of the men, Bybee and Yoo, had violated professional standards; that could have met the man with lose their right to practice law. The report says the memos did not represent thorough objective and candid legal advice. It says Yoo and Bybee were aware of the result desired by the client and drafted memoranda to support that result.

Investigators finished their work last July and sent the report to David Margolis, the man who oversees the Office of Professional Responsibility. Margolis has been a Justice Department attorney for more than 40 years. He downgraded the reports findings. Instead of professional misconduct, Margolis concluded that Yoo and Bybee had exercised poor judgment. He explained his reasoning in a 69-page memo attached to the nearly 300 page report. Margolis called the torture memos flawed and said this decision should not be viewed as an endorsement of the legal work that underlies those memoranda.

This means Yoo and Bybee will not be disbarred as lawyers or face criminal punishment. Yoo is now a Berkeley law professor. His lawyer, Miguel Estrada praised Margolis decision to downgrade the criticism and called the initial investigation shoddy and biased. Bybee is a federal appeals court judge now with life tenure. His attorney, Maureen Mahoney, said while this vindication was many years in the making, we are pleased that the matter has now been resolved in his favor.

Mr. VINCENT WARREN (Center for Constitutional Rights): Its hard to see how this report vindicates the clients.

SHAPIRO: Vincent Warren directs the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many terrorism detainees.

Mr. WARREN: This is a real slap in the face for the real human beings that suffered real abuse through the misstatements of law and the misdirection that was done by the men who wrote the torture memorandum.

SHAPIRO: But David Rivkin who worked in the Justice Department under Republican presidents disagrees. He says the torture memos reflect a policy disagreement about a gray area in the law. And he says this report should resolve that once and for all.

Mr. DAVID RIVKIN (Former Justice Department Official): The fact that it happened on the Obama administrations watch should make this report all that much more credible than if it happen on the previous administrations watch.

SHAPIRO: The debate is not done. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees both announced hearings into the report. Senate Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy also called on Judge Bybee to resign. Leahy said Bybee would never have been confirmed if Congress had known about his role in memos.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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