War & Peace
Torture Memo Author John Yoo Admits CIA Went Too Far
John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who authored a series of notorious memos cited by the Bush administration to justify the torture of terrorism detainees, acknowledged on Sunday that the CIA may have broken the law.
While the definition and prohibition of torture had long been established under domestic and international law, the Bush administration turned to Yoo and other attorneys in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to provide legal cover for its torture program in the dark days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Yoo authored a series of legal memos asserting sweeping presidential powers during wartime, including the authority to suspend constitutional free speech and anti-torture protections and to ignore domestic and international bans on torture. He infamously wrote that detainee abuse only crossed the threshold of torture when the pain inflicted was equal to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
Even under Yoo’s ultra-narrow definition, much of the abuse documented in the recently-released Senate Intelligence Committee report qualifies as torture — one innocent detainee even froze to death while chained naked to a dungeon floor, and now one of the leading architects of the Bush torture regime says the CIA may have gone too far.
“If these things happened as they’re described in the report… they were not supposed to be done,” Yoo said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” on Sunday. “And the people who did those are at risk legally because they were acting outside their orders,” he added.
Yoo did, however, question the legitimacy and veracity of the Senate report “because there were no Republicans involved” in its preparation and because the Senate Intelligence Committee “didn’t interview any witnesses.”
Still, Yoo’s acknowledgement that CIA operatives may have broken the law by torturing detainees, including dozens of innocent men, stands in sharp contrast to former vice president Dick Cheney, who appeared on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday and defended Bush-era torture, defiantly telling the world he’d “do it again in a minute.”
When asked by host Chuck Todd if he was bothered that at least 26 of the 119 detainees covered in the Senate report were deemed “wrongfully held,” Cheney scoffed that he was “more concerned with the bad guys that were released than the few that were, in fact, innocent.”
Even with his acknowledgement, Yoo could not escape criticism of his attempt to re-write the law to justify the Bush administration’s torture program. Federal law (18 US Code § 2340) explicitly bans “acts… intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering,” as well as “application, or threatened administration or application… procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses” and “the threat of imminent death.”
The Senate report revealed that scores of detainees, many of them innocent men, were interrogated for days on end, kept awake for up to 180 hours, forced to stand on broken legs and feet, had objects forced up their rectums and were exposed to lethally extreme cold. Detainees were also subjected to mock executions and threatened with actual execution, as well as with rape and with being forced to watch their mothers being raped and murdered.
Yoo’s dubious legal claim that detainees, as “enemy combatants,” were exempt from legal protection is also not supported by the law. Under Article 2 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is signatory, “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever… may be invoked as a justification for torture.”
The punishment for torture under federal law is imprisonment for up to 20 years, or if the victim dies, up to life imprisonment and even execution. US and international law also explicitly call for the prosecution of those who torture. But despite campaign promises to bring the Bush torturers to justice, President Barack Obama has gone to great lengths to shield them from accountability.
Yoo, one of more than a dozen Bush-era officials responsible for the post-9/11 torture regime, has never been held accountable for his memos. Since leaving office, he has defended his positions, even arguing that the president has the right to massacre an entire village of innocent civilians if he sees fit. Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Meanwhile, individuals who expose alleged US war crimes and other misdeeds, such as whistleblowers Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning,Julian Assange and John Kiriakou — who attempted to reveal CIA torture and other abuses years ago, have been aggressively targeted by the Obama administration.