WASHINGTON – Twelve former judges, seven past presidents of the American Bar Association, a former FBI director and more than 100 other legal experts called Wednesday for a thorough investigation of Bush administration memos that explored ways to skirt the laws against torture.
The group also asked the administration to release all memos on the subject and urged Congress to probe how Bush officials decided to treat detainees captured in the war on terrorism.
“The most senior lawyers in the Department of Justice, the White House, Department of Defense and the vice president’s office have sought to justify actions that violate the most basic rights of all human beings,” said the group’s statement, signed by 130 officials and lawyers, including former FBI chief William Sessions.
The statement cites a series of memos written between early 2002, when the administration decided not to give detainees POW status, and April 2003, when the CIA and military were trying to get more information from captives but were concerned about the legal consequences of any mistreatment.
In one 46-page memo in 2002, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee – who’s now a federal judge – narrowly defined torture as “only extreme acts” that could lead to “death or organ failure.”
He also wrote that the president, as commander in chief in the war against terrorism, wasn’t constrained by anti-torture laws.
Some of the memos were leaked to reporters in the spring and others were released by the White House. Bush officials say they never countenanced torture and that the memos were merely internal documents reflecting a vigorous debate.
But retired federal appeals Judge John Gibbons of New Jersey said the memos were “very shocking because they advised on how the executive branch can violate statutes and treaties and avoid prosecution.”
Added John Curtin, a former president of the ABA: “They defined torture in such a way that anything goes.”
Administration officials have said the memos didn’t pave the way for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and that the use of some “stress and duress” techniques on foreign detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was carefully supervised.
But even supporters of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised questions about the memos.
Ruth Wedgewood, a leading international law expert who’s advised the Pentagon and defended recent policies, and James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, criticized the memos in an article they wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
“One cannot dismiss them as mere academic musings, for they served as the starting point for other deliberations on appropriate standards for detention and interrogation,” the two wrote.
Neither Wedgewood nor Woolsey signed Wednesday’s statement, however.