- A team of administration lawyers concluded in a March 2003 legal memorandum that President Bush was not bound by either an international treaty prohibiting torture or by a federal antitorture law because he had the authority as commander in chief to approve any technique needed to protect the nation's security.
The memo, prepared for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, also said that any executive branch officials, including those in the military, could be immune from domestic and international prohibitions against torture for a variety of reasons.
One reason, the lawyers said, would be if military personnel believed that they were acting on orders from superiors "except where the conduct goes so far as to be patently unlawful." . . .
The March memorandum, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Monday, is the latest internal legal study to be disclosed that shows that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the administration's lawyers were set to work to find legal arguments to avoid restrictions imposed by international and American law.
A Jan. 22, 2002, memorandum from the Justice Department that provided arguments to keep American officials from being charged with war crimes for the way prisoners were detained and interrogated was used extensively as a basis for the March memorandum on avoiding proscriptions against torture.
The previously disclosed Justice Department memorandum concluded that administration officials were justified in asserting that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to detainees from the Afghanistan war.
Another memorandum obtained by The Times indicates that most of the administration's top lawyers, with the exception of those at the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, approved of the Justice Department's position that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war in Afghanistan. In addition, that memorandum, dated Feb. 2, 2002, noted that lawyers for the Central Intelligence Agency had asked for an explicit understanding that the administration's public pledge to abide by the spirit of the conventions did not apply to its operatives.
The March memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, was prepared as part of a review of interrogation techniques by a working group appointed by the Defense Department's general counsel, William J. Haynes. The group itself was led by the Air Force general counsel, Mary Walker, and included military and civilian lawyers from all branches of the armed services.
The review stemmed from concerns raised by Pentagon lawyers and interrogators at Guantánamo after Mr. Rumsfeld approved a set of harsher interrogation techniques in December 2002 to use on a Saudi detainee, Mohamed al-Kahtani, who was believed to be the planned 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 terror plot. . . .
The memo showed that not only lawyers from the Defense and Justice departments and the White House approved of the policy but also that David S. Addington, the counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, also was involved in the deliberations. The State Department lawyer, William H. Taft IV, dissented, warning that such a position would weaken the protections of the Geneva Conventions for American troops.
The March 6 document about torture provides tightly constructed definitions of torture. For example, if an interrogator "knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith," the report said. "Instead, a defendant is guilty of torture only if he acts with the express purpose of inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person within his control."
The adjective "severe," the report said, "makes plain that the infliction of pain or suffering per se, whether it is physical or mental, is insufficient to amount to torture. Instead, the text provides that pain or suffering must be `severe.' " The report also advised that if an interrogator "has a good faith belief his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture."
The report also said that interrogators could justify breaching laws or treaties by invoking the doctrine of necessity. An interrogator using techniques that cause harm might be immune from liability if he "believed at the moment that his act is necessary and designed to avoid greater harm."
Scott Horton, the former head of the human rights committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, said Monday that he believed that the March memorandum on avoiding responsibility for torture was what caused a delegation of military lawyers to visit him and complain privately about the administration's confidential legal arguments. That visit, he said, resulted in the association undertaking a study and issuing of a report criticizing the administration. He added that the lawyers who drafted the torture memo in March could face professional sanctions.
Jamie Fellner, the director of United States programs for Human Rights Watch, said Monday, "We believe that this memo shows that at the highest levels of the Pentagon there was an interest in using torture as well as a desire to evade the criminal consequences of doing so."
The March memorandum also contains a curious section in which the lawyers argued that any torture committed at Guantánamo would not be a violation of the anti-torture statute because the base was under American legal jurisdiction and the statute concerns only torture committed overseas. That view is in direct conflict with the position the administration has taken in the Supreme Court, where it has argued that prisoners at Guantánamo Bay are not entitled to constitutional protections because the base is outside American jurisdiction. (Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt, "Lawyers Decided Bans on Torture Didn't Bind Bush," New York Times, June 8, 2004)
- In the view expressed by the Justice Department memo, which differs from the view of the Army, physical torture "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." For a cruel or inhuman psychological technique to rise to the level of mental torture, the Justice Department argued, the psychological harm must last "months or even years." (Mike Allen and Dana Priest, "Memo on Torture Draws Focus to Bush: Aide Says President Set Guidelines for Interrogations, Not Specific Techniques," Washington Post, June 9, 2004, p. A3)
- "Portions of Pentagon Working Group Draft Report on Interrogation Methods, Reportedly Prepared in Consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice" (March 6, 2003)
- The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the Committee on International Human Rights and the Committee on Military Affairs and Justice: ""Human Rights Standards Applicable to the United States' Interrogation of Detainees; and "Supplement: Human Rights Standards Applicable to The United States' Interrogation of Detainees."