A few words of context before substance. The OLC is sometimes called “the Attorney General's Lawyer”. It's an elite bureau in the Justice Dept. staffed by very very intelligent and highly credentialed people. Its primary function is to give opinions on matters of constitutionality regarding interdepartmental and inter-branch relations, and to opine on the constitutionality of pending legislation. By all accounts working at OLC is one of the most interesting jobs in government if you are interested in constitutional law or the working of government.
White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who requested this memo, is not the head of the OLC. The White House Counsel is part of the Office of the President, and the Counsel is the President's staff lawyer, just as the Attorney General is the President's institutional lawyer; neither of these people however is the President's personal lawyer.
OK. On to the substance.
The memo is about what limits on the use of force (“standards of permissible conduct”) for interrogations conducted “abroad” are found in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment ( Torture Convention) “as implemented” by 18 USC §§ 2340-2340A (the Torture statute).
The memo concludes that the restrictions are very limited — that only acts inflicting and “specifically intended to inflict severe pain or suffering”, whether mental or physical, are prohibited. Allowed are severe mental pain not intended to have lasting effects (pity if they do…), and physical pain less than that which acompanies “serious physical injury such as death or organ failure” (p. 46). Having opined that some cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts are not forbidden, only those that are “extreme acts” (committed on purpose), the memo moves on to “examine defenses” that could be asserted to “negate any claims that certain interrogation methods violate the statute.”
- This is not a draft, but it's not an action document either. It's legal advice to the Counselor for the President. The action document was Gonzales's memo to Bush.
- This OLC document is a legalistic, logic-chopping brief for the torturer. Its entire thrust is justifying maximal pain.
- Nowhere do the authors say “but this would be wrong”.
- Lots of the (lousy) criminal law legal reasoning in this memo is picked up in the Draft Walker Working Group memo
- This memo also has a full dose of the royalist vision of the Presidency that informs the Draft Walker memo. In the views of the author(s), there's basically nothing Congress can do to constrain the President's exercise of the war power. The Geneva Conventions are, by inevitable implications, not binding on the President, nor is any other international agreement if it impedes the war effort. I'm sure our allies will be just thrilled to hear that. And, although the memo nowhere treats this issue, presumably, also, the same applies in reverse, and our adversaries should feel unconstrained by any treaties against poison gas, torture, land mines, or anything else? Or is ignoring treaties a unique prerogative of the USA?
Synopsis and commentary:
Pages 2-13 are the same sort of unconvincing criminal law analysis that others have critiqued in the Walker Working Group memo
Admitting that the Torture Statute is designed to implement the Torture Convention, and that therefore the interpretation of the treaty should inform one's interpretation of the statute, page 14 of the Bybee memo starts in on the Torture Convention. It finds in the Convention a distinction between the worst acts of torture and lesser acts of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. (P. 15) That's fair enough.
Then things get weird. When the Senate ratified the Torture Convention in 1994 it stated “[t]hat the United States considers itself bound by the obligation under Article 16 to prevent 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,' only insofar as the term 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment' means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.” 136 Cong. Rec. 17491 (Oct. 27, 1990).
It's obvious (I hope) that the various horrors the memo would allow, such as hurting prisoners a great deal (but not quite to the point of 'torture'), drugging them, scaring them, and so on, indeed very many things we would call “cruel, inhuman or degrading” would be the sort of thing that we would domestically prohibit as “cruel and unusual” punishment. But if that's right, then the memo is deeply, horribly, wrong.
So, here's how they try to reason out of that hole: It's not the Senate's view that really counts. No, it's the
King's President's view of the treaty's meaning that has the “greatest weight” (p. 16). To get to this conclusion they cite a bunch of court decisions that say the executive's view is entitled to “great weight” (which it is)…but the difference between “great” and “greatest” is, well, pretty great.
Having decided that it's the executive branch's views that matter, the memo then parses the Reagan administration's submissions to the Senate relating to the proposed ratification of the the Convention. One problem with relying on what the Reagan administration said is that the Senate didn't ratify the Convention until the first Bush administration. Arguably it did so in reliance on the Bush administration's submissions which, as the memo delicately puts it used “less vigorous rhetoric” (p. 18). In fact, the Bush administration used language much like that in the Torture Statute; but the memo chooses to rely on the Reagan language instead (p. 19) to find that only the most extreme conduct would be prohibited.
As for what the Senate may have said in the ratification debates, the memo's attitude is — Who Cares? “[A]part from statements by Executive Branch officials, the rest of a ratification debate is of little weight in interpreting a treaty”. For a statement of the contrary, and widely accepted, view that requires a court to consider legislative sources, see Restatement (3rd) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States § 325 comment 5.
Despite the increasingly heard right-wing complaint that the Supreme Court should not rely on the decisions of foreign courts, the Memo then turns to what other nations have said constitutes torture. The most important case on which the Memo relies is “Ireland v. United Kingdom”:, a 1978 decision of the European Court of Human Rights which held that “interrogation in depth” involving “five techniques” was not “torture” but merely “inhuman and degrading treatment”. The five techniques were:
a) wall-standing: forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a “stress position”, described by those who underwent it as being “spreadeagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers”;
b) hooding: putting a black or navy coloured bag over the detainees' heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation;
c) subjection to noise: pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise;
d) deprivation of sleep: pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep;
e) deprivation of food and drink.. subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the centre and pending interrogations.
If one believed that US law banned only “torture” and not mere “inhumane and degrading treatment” then I think the Memo would be right to rely on this precedent. The key issue is whether that initial distinction is right.
(The memo also noted, at pp. 30-31, the Israeli Supreme Court's decision in “Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v. Israel”:, 38 LL.M. 1471 (1999), which discussed even more aggressive measures and found them to be “inhuman and degrading”. The Bybee Memo argues somewhat unpersuasively that this means the Court did not believe them to be torture, a reading it buttressed by noting that Court accepted there might be a necessity defense in some cases. I'm no expert here, but I'm dubious: the Israeli Supreme Court was ruling in a charged and political case, and was very mindful of the potential effect on international public opinion. It had every incentive to avoid the word 'torture'; as for the necessity defense, the Israeli rule, like the US rule, contemplates permitting some things under domestic law that violate international law. “Necessity” in Israel is seen as touching national survival.)
Page 31 returns us to Wonderland. Here the memo reverses field and says, basically, if we were wrong about any of this stuff and the statute did ban an interrogation technique then the statute would be unconstitutional as an impermissible encroachment on the President's Commander-in-Chief power to wage a military campaign, especially in circumstances “unprecedented in recent American history”. (Note the qualifier: it is NOT the first time we've had an attack on our shores or even on core government institutions. After all, the British burned the White House in 1814.) The next couple pages recite what a great threat Al Qaeda is, and the great national effort to fight it, concluding that “the capture and interrogation of such individuals is clearly imperative to our national security and defense” as they could tell us information that would prevent future attacks.
[In what now must seem highly ironic this section of the memo concludes by citing Padilla's arrest as an example of the valuable intelligence that could be gathered to prevent future attacks on the US. (In fact, by all accounts other than the Justice Department's, Padilla was at worst a nasty, ill-intentioned incompetent or perhaps just a big talker; his lawyer argues he was a guy who soured on Al Qaeda and made up stuff so they'd let him go back to the US).]
The memo then argues (pp. 33- ) that any criminal statute such as the Torture statute, which might be read to limit the President's authority to wage war must be read to avoid this constitutional problem. It's certainly right that reading statutes to avoid constitutional problems is a good interpretive strategy. The problem here, as I've suggested previously, is that there isn't actually much of a constitutional problem here: a President negotiated the statute, the Senate ratified it, both houses of Congress passed implementing legislation that a different President signed. Treaties are the law of the land. Once implemented in legislation (few treaties are “self-executing,” so legislation is almost always needed), the President has a duty to take care that they be faithfully executed unless Congress relieves him of that obligation. That didn't happen here.
The memo argues (p. 35) that Congress “may no more regulate the President's ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” Either this is just bunk, or the Geneva conventions, the prohibitions on the use of poison gas, all the rest of the web of international agreements to which the US is a party, are so much tissue paper. We're no longer committed to the rule of law, but the rule of force. (In fact what the OLC seemed to argue for in other memos was a double standard in which international law still applied to everyone else.)
In any case, there's an enormous difference between unfettered discretion to move troops around on the battlefield and unfettered discretion to order war crimes. One has to do with determining what tools the President has available to conduct the war, the other with the conduct of it. Congress has a great say in the first, even if it has no say in the second.
[Update (6/14/04 12:10): In response to a question, I guess I should clarify this: Congress has discretion to choose the tools available to the President. It can rule some practices unlawful, either under its Art I, sec. 8, para. 14 authority “To make Rules for the Government and Regulation” of the armed forces or under the Art. VI Treaty power. I would argue it can order all troops leave a given country, if only under the power of the purse. But it cannot direct a brigade to go here or there in the field of battle.]
Page 36 pulls back a bit in the direction of reality. Perhaps realizing that its argument is a little daft, the memo considers the possibility that “[i]t could be argued that Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. § 2340A with the full knowledge and consideration of the President's Commander-in-Chief power, and the Congress intended to restrict his discretion in the interrogation of enemy combatants.” But the visit is merely temporary, for the memo quickly asserts that even if this were the case, “the Department of Justice could not could not [sic] enforce Section 2340A against federal officials acting pursuant to the President's constitutional authority to wage a military campaign”.
Note that the argument here is not that the DOJ should use its prosecutorial discretion, but rather that it would have a legal duty to abstain from prosecution. Why couldn't the DOJ prosecute what appears to be a crime? Because the President's power to protect the nation's security is paramount (p. 36), and plenary, especially “in grave and unforseen emergencies” (p. 37).
Now, there really is great substance to the argument that the President's powers are at its apex if he has to repel a sudden attack on the US. I think all constitutional scholars would agree with that. But the scenario to which this applies is the invading army, the advancing missile or aircraft, not the detainee captured half way across the world.
By page 39 of the memo, however, we're back to the Vesting Clauses of the Constitution, and the argument the President is a law to himself regarding anything touching military matters. “Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of battlefield combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President.” And since intelligence gathering is so critical to modern warfare against terrorists, Congress certainly can't interfere with that.
In short, it's the same Nixonian argument all over: the DOJ can't prosecute anyone who, in anything arguably connected to the war effort, does what the President tells them to.
But that's not enough. The Memo then turns to other defenses besides Presidential authorization that might be raised by a person accused of torture. [I take it that this section of the memo applies to both accusations of “torture” which the authors admit is torture and accusations of “torture” that the memo writers would characterize as mere “cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts” that are not actual torture, but it's a little vague on this, and it's conceivable the authors mean this section only to apply to the latter. The memo speaks of force, even deadly force, which suggests it includes what they call torture, but elsewhere it notes that the force must be “proportional” to the need; given that the “need” is national security, and the memo treats this as the summum bonum, I read the memo to intend the defenses potentially to apply to all uses of force including the most severe torture.]
The first is the “necessity” defense, the second is a notion of “self-defense”. I will leave it to others to skewer these. But I do feel a need to point out just how far down the slippery slope this memo goes by page 45. It argues that otherwise criminal individual acts can be defended by invoking the nations's not the individual's right to self-defense (and even in a footnote argues that there's a relevant analogy to the right to national self-defense under international law. And this applies to suspected prospective attackers and their associates as well as soldiers in the field. How this differs from saying that if the US even suspects anyone of wanting to harm it, it can do anything it wants to them is not clear on first reading.
Ultimately, the best legal commentary on this memo may belong to Professor Jay Leno:
According to the “New York Times”, last year White House lawyers concluded that President Bush could legally order interrogators to torture and even kill people in the interest of national security – so if that's legal, what the hell are we charging Saddam Hussein with?
Remember: the lawyers who wrote this memo were guilty of a lack of moral sense, and extreme tunnel vision fueled by a national panic. The people who asked them to write it, who read it, and especially any who may have acted on it — they're people who really have the most to answer for.