No Comment — December 4, 2009, 12:11 pm

DOJ to the Rescue… of John Yoo

The Holder Justice Department has filed a sweeping amicus brief in the Padilla v. Yoo case before the Ninth Circuit, seeking to make absolute the immunity granted Justice Department lawyers who counsel torture, disappearings, and other crimes against humanity. The case was brought by Jose Padilla, who claims that he was tortured as the direct result of memoranda written by Yoo, now a law professor at Berkeley. At this stage, the case does not address the factual basis of Padilla’s claims, but documents that have been declassified by the Department of Justice make it clear that the charges have a firm basis in fact. Here’s the portion of the opinion authored by a lifelong Republican, Bush-appointed judge that the Justice Department found so objectionable:

Like any other government official, government lawyers are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct….

The Holder Justice Department insists that they are absolutely not responsible, and that they are free to act according to a far lower standard of conduct than that which governs Americans generally. Indeed, this has emerged as a sort of ignoble mantra for the Justice Department, uniting both the Bush and Obama administrations.

According to the allegations in the suit, Padilla’s extraordinary regimen of abuse was imposed only after John Yoo personally gave it a green light, knowing that the torture prescription awaited his say-so. The result was long-term physical and psychological damage. Yoo’s outlandish opinions have been rescinded, but the question remains: can a Justice Department lawyer be held to account for grossly incompetent and unethical work that results in severe physical harm? It’s long been a tenet of federal law that agents of the government who are responsible for torturing individuals may be held to account for their conduct. The Holder Justice Department has been working feverishly to overturn this law, at least as it applies to employees of the Justice Department. With the solid backing of Republican-appointed judges on the Second Circuit, they achieved a major breakthrough on the Second Circuit in the Maher Arar case. Now they’re peddling the same pap to the Ninth Circuit.

The Justice Department once argued that no doctrine of immunity could be invoked to protect a person who, under cover of law and the authority of office, engages in torture, conspiracy to torture, or the holding of individuals outside of access to justice for prolonged periods (“disappearings”). These arguments were made in cases brought before the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, including United States v. Altstoetter and the Ministries cases—authorities which the brief filed by the Justice Department fails to note. Now the Justice Department argues that there are only three possible avenues for accountability of a Justice Department lawyer: internal review by the Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of Inspector General, bar disciplinary action, and criminal prosecution. It effectively boils down to the Justice Department saying that it alone will decide about the accountability of its staffers for wrongful conduct that damages others.

Moreover, the courses that the brief describes are a chimera. The Office of Professional Responsibility has investigated John Yoo’s abusive and unprofessional memo writing for five years. As of this morning, its findings still have not been released—notwithstanding a representation by the attorney general to the Senate Judiciary Committee that they would be made public before November was out. More generally, OPR rarely actually investigates even the most serious allegations of misconduct, and almost never actually recommends any form of discipline. The only exceptions occur when a federal judge becomes involved, insisting on action (and often not even then), or when the misconduct becomes a matter of public outrage sustained in major newspapers and broadcast media for years. The ABA Journal has correctly summarized the situation by calling OPR the Justice Department’s “roach motel”—“the cases go in, but nothing ever comes out.”

The brief’s reference to the Inspector General’s office is also absurd. As OIG notes, it does not even have jurisdiction to deal with legal professional staff at the Justice Department—that rests with OPR.

Next, the Department suggests that state bar associations can address these questions. As a matter of established practice, however, state bar associations do not take up cases involving Justice Department employees. They defer instead to the Justice Department to deal with them, choosing only to look at cases involving Justice Department lawyers when the DOJ asks them to do so. Bars also apply guild rules, and like the ancient guilds, don’t much like punishing their own.

Finally, there is the question of criminal accountability. In the face of actual criminal investigations, the DOJ has behaved usually like a criminal accused, and intent on obstruction, not like a law enforcement agency. Criminal investigations involving the conduct of Yoo and his fellow torture-memo writers are underway at this moment in a number of foreign jurisdictions, most notably including the two pending criminal cases in Spain. It’s noteworthy that the U.S. Justice Department, presented with letters rogatory from the Spanish court probing into the torture of Spanish citizens at Guantánamo and the role played by DOJ lawyers in this process, elected not to respond. Attorney General Holder traveled to Europe at the outset of his term, promising European justice officials a new era of cooperation. But in the first significant test case, he has continued the Bush-era cover-up of potentially criminal misconduct deep inside the Justice Department.

The Holder Justice Department’s brief can only be squared with prior DOJ arguments this way: foreign lawyers in foreign Justice Departments have no immunity and can be held accountable, but lawyers who work for us have absolute immunity from any meaningful form of accountability. The path to a renewal of the criminal misconduct of the Bush years is being prepared right now. And Obama Justice Department lawyers are doing the work.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Sarah Topol follows the trade routes used by arms smugglers, Eric Foner explores the hidden history of the Underground Railroad, Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts a humiliating episode from grade school, and more
Photograph by Angela Strassheim
Article
Growing Up·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance.”
Photograph by Ben Pier
Article
Guns and Poses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘It’s open shopping,’ he said. ‘A warehouse. The whole of Libya.’”
Map by Mike Reagan
Article
Gateway to Freedom·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Vigilance Committee survived until the eve of the Civil War, and over the course of its several incarnations it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness.“
Photograph by Amani Willett
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:

$2,100,000,000,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

A former New York City police officer who had been arrested in 2012 for exchanging online messages about cooking women alive and eating them, and for illegally accessing data about potential victims in law-enforcement databases, was sentenced to time served.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today