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'Torture memos' authors: Rebuked but won't be disbarred

Bush administration lawyers who wrote the so-called "torture memos" exercised "poor judgment" in writing legal opinions that “contained significant flaws," according to the Justice Department. But they weren't guilty of professional misconduct that might have meant disbarment.

By Staff Writer / February 20, 2010

John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2008. Former Justice Department lawyers Yoo and Jay Bybee authorized CIA interrogators to use waterboarding and other harsh tactics, an internal review released Friday, Feb. 19, found.

Susan Walsh/AP/File


The infamous "torture memos" are back.

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One of the most controversial aspects of the “war on terror” – especially at the height of the fighting in Iraq – was the way those captured by US and other allied forces were questioned.

Described variously as “torture” or merely “harsh,” these “enhanced interrogation techniques” included the infamous waterboarding – the near-drowning of captives – as well as “stress positions,” sleep deprivation, isolation, extremes in temperature, and other methods meant to elicit actionable intelligence.

At the heart of the controversy among military professionals as well as elected officials (and Americans generally) were the so-called “torture memos” written by Justice Department officials in the Bush administration as a basis for justifying harsh interrogation.

Now, the Justice Department's ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility, has determined that the memo’s authors – John Yoo and Jay Bybeeexercised “poor judgment” in writing legal opinions that “contained significant flaws.”

Office of Professional Responsibility investigators found that Yoo had "violated his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective and candid legal advice.” And they determined that Bybee had "acted in reckless disregard" of ethical obligations for his actions regarding the memos.

Ideology trumped legal obligation

"I fear that John Yoo's loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view of his obligation to his client [President Bush] and led him to author opinions that reflected his own extreme, albeit sincerely held, views of executive power," writes Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis.

At the same time, according to the report released Friday, Yoo and Bybee were not guilty of professional misconduct that might have led to their disbarment. Today, Mr. Yoo is a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley and Mr. Bybee is a federal judge.