No Comment — February 24, 2010, 10:49 am

The Margolis Memo

Legal ethicist David Luban delivers a coup de grâce to the Margolis memorandum in a piece at Slate entitled “David Margolis is Wrong”:

Margolis’ critique got Yoo and Bybee off the hook. So how strong is his position compared with OPR’s? The short answer: weak.

The focus of OPR’s investigation is two memos from Aug. 1, 2002. They were written in secrecy by John Yoo and an assistant in the Office of Legal Counsel whose name is redacted. Bybee, as head of OLC, signed off on the memos. One memo analyzes torture, executive power, and criminal defenses for interrogators accused of torture; the other approves 10 techniques for tormenting Abu Zubaydah in a secret CIA prison, including water-boarding him. The question for OPR was whether Bybee and Yoo had violated ethics rules by twisting the law to the breaking point to give CIA operatives maximum assurance and leeway.
Both the OPR report and Margolis agree that (in Margolis’ understatement) “these memos contain some significant flaws.” There they part company. The OPR report finds that Yoo and Bybee violated two rules of professional conduct: Rule 1.1, requiring competence, and Rule 2.1, requiring lawyers to “exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.” Margolis rejects OPR’s analysis and concludes that “poor judgment” rather than professional misconduct “accounts for the entirety of Yoo’s work” on the torture memos.

But that’s not the right characterization for memos that used extravagant legal reasoning to approve torture. It’s like saying that Iago’s advice to Othello showed poor judgment. OPR made a powerful case against Bybee and Yoo. In response, Margolis went after OPR like a defense lawyer, upped the burden of proof beyond what the ethics rules require, and minimized the liberties that Yoo and Bybee had taken with the law.

The Margolis memo simply doesn’t make sense as a discussion of legal ethics. It is a political document and has to be understood that way. It tells us that Department political interests trump ethics.

Over the past two years, I have consistently been told by insiders at Justice that an elaborate game was played to try to slow down or block the OPR’s report. Efforts were made to pressure OPR to rewrite its report, to adopt softer standards, to allow Yoo and Bybee to respond internally, and to require OPR to address the responses. I was told that one man was consistently behind these tactics: David Margolis. So, far from being an objective and impartial analyst, Margolis became engaged in the process at least by the fall of 2008, as an advocate for Yoo and Bybee and opponent of OPR.

The first question is simple: Why is a career Justice Department official with well-documented sympathies being put in the position of final reviewer? Margolis not only lacks serious grounding in professional ethics rules; his prior decisions reflect an attitude that borders on overt contempt for them.

But a couple of further points are necessary. One is that Margolis’s own memorandum weirdly mirrors the torture memoranda. He uses what legal academics call the doctrine of legal indeterminacy as a shield for these lawyers. He argues that the law is unclear, riddled with ambiguities. Of course, this is the key weapon used by Yoo in the torture memo and a number of others—he claims that the legal standards are unclear and that in the face of such uncertainty, the power of the president as commander-in-chief cannot be limited. Margolis proceeds to demonstrate that he knows next to nothing (and apparently cares very little) about U.S. law of war doctrine. His arguments are clever and cute—about the sort of thing one would expect of a very aggressive defense counsel.

Second, Margolis makes a great deal of OPR’s changes in its text. He suggests that this reflects a lack of clarity in the process and standards they apply. This is a dishonest argument, because the changes in the text resulted very largely from David Margolis’s own prodding and perversion of proper procedure. He was, we can now clearly say, setting them up for the fall.

Third, and this is very telling, Margolis really doesn’t think that the candor rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility should apply to the torture memo writers. They are just telling a client “what he can get away with,” Margolis tells us, quoting Jack Goldsmith. That’s a breathtaking statement. But it also reflects a longstanding battle in Washington, in which the Justice Department has argued that its lawyers should not be subjected to the ethics requirements of the various state bars but only to those of the D.C. bar—which are heavily influenced by the Justice Department. Specifically, the Justice Department has assailed the idea that its lawyers are required to deal with outsiders honestly, claiming that it should be exempted from this requirement in the interests of national security and effective criminal prosecution. Lying for country and to gain speedy convictions—how noble. Here’s a leaked Congressional Research Service review of the Justice Department’s shifty positions on these issues, setting much of the background. One Justice Department leader figures consistently behind the efforts to dodge bar ethics oversight: that’s right, David Margolis.

Let’s be clear about what makes David Margolis tick. He’s not a partisan Republican or a partisan Democrat. He has no real engagement in terms of partisan politics. He represents a culture of craven clientalism in which lawyers are not the champions of the law but instruments in the hands of their employers, dedicated to getting them the results they want. Margolis is prepared to do the bidding of his master, whether his name is Alberto Gonzales or Eric Holder. In the case of the torture memo writers, he also saw a threat to the culture he has promoted at the Justice Department. It would lead, he thought, to internecine warfare within the department between Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, prominent Republicans were threatening just that. Nothing would be so threatening to the matrix in which Margolis thrives as this, and he was determined to stop it. So the final outcome in the Bybee/Yoo case has nothing to do with legal ethics. It is driven by David Margolis’s assessment of pragmatic politics and his willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A decorated veteran of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq had his prosthetic limbs repossessed from his home in Mississippi when the VA declined to pay for them.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today