Tuesday, June 08, 2004


Not Bound by Laws?

Ah, those memo's that should have remained secret.

Here's one I bet the Bush Administration wishes was never made public.

From the aWall Street Journal.

Pentagon Report Set Framework For Use of Torture
Security or Legal Factors Could Trump Restrictions, Memo to Rumsfeld Argued

Bush administration lawyers contended last year that the president wasn't bound by laws prohibiting torture and that government agents who might torture prisoners at his direction couldn't be prosecuted by the Justice Department.

The advice was part of a classified report on interrogation methods prepared for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after commanders at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, complained in late 2002 that with conventional methods they weren't getting enough information from prisoners.

Re-read that and marvel.

And wonder.

Wonder if those who once yelled about 'the rule of law' and 'we're a nation of laws' at the top of their lungs at Bill Clinton will now say that it is wrong for Mr. Bush not to be bound by laws prohibiting torture.

Continue reading.

The president, despite domestic and international laws constraining the use of torture, has the authority as commander in chief to approve almost any physical or psychological actions during interrogation, up to and including torture, the report argued. Civilian or military personnel accused of torture or other war crimes have several potential defenses, including the "necessity" of using such methods to extract information to head off an attack, or "superior orders," sometimes known as the Nuremberg defense: namely that the accused was acting pursuant to an order and, as the Nuremberg tribunal put it, no "moral choice was in fact possible."

Re-read that.

Continue reading:

To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."

What they are arguing, in cased you missed it, is that the president is above the law in the name of The War On Terror™.

That is a scary proposition.

Phillip Carter has this to say.

Analysis: Normally, I would say that there is a fine line separating legal advice on how to stay within the law, and legal advice on how to avoid prosecution for breaking the law. DoD and DoJ lawyers often provide this first kind of sensitive legal advice to top decisionmakers in the Executive Branch (regardless of administration) who want to affirm the legality of their actions. Often times, memoranda on these topics can be seen both ways, depending on your perspective. I tend to think that the Yoo memorandum and Gonzales memorandum leaned more heavily towards providing advice about how to stay (barely) within the bounds of the law — not how to break the law and get away with it. But this DoD memo appears to be quite the opposite. It is, quite literally, a cookbook approach for illegal government conduct. This memorandum lays out the substantive law on torture and how to avoid it. It then goes on to discuss the procedural mechanisms with which torture is normally prosecuted, and techniques for avoiding those traps. I have not seen the text of the memo, but from this report, it does not appear that it advises American personnel to comply with international or domestic law. It merely tells them how to avoid it. That is dangerous legal advice.

*Emphasis added.

He also has a Constitutional problem with the memo as reported.

Second, I'd like to counterpose one other key point from the memo against an excerpt from the U.S. Constitution. Compare the following line from the WSJ story:

To protect subordinates should they be charged with torture, the memo advised that Mr. Bush issue a "presidential directive or other writing" that could serve as evidence, since authority to set aside the laws is "inherent in the president."
with this passage from Art. II, Sec. 3 of the U.S. Constitution, regarding Presidential power:

Section 3.

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.

The italicized passage is commonly called the "take care" clause by Constitutional Law scholars. It is not a permissive grant of power — it is an affirmative duty to enforce the laws and ensure that subordinate officers of the government do the same. It is the basis for Presidential command and control over the executive branch, and it has been invoked on many occasions to justify prosecution of law violation within the branch. President Truman tried to invoke this clause, in conjunction with his broader power as Commander-in-Chief, to justify the emergency seizure of steel mills during a labor stoppage during the Korean War. The Supreme Court sharply rebuked him, saying that he lacked the Constitutional authority to do so. (See Youngstown v. Sawyer, aka The Steel Seizure Case). I have read a fair amount on this particular area of Constitutional Law, and think the DoD memo gets it wrong. I am not aware of any legal authority which supports the proposition that the President has inherent power to set aside the laws when he deems it necessary. If anything, the opposite is true, according to Supreme Court precedent and treatises on Constitutional Law by scholars such as Joseph Story. Even in wartime, the President's authority to act is limited by the Constitution. There is no general Presidential power to nullify the laws of the United States, nor the laws of war which have been codified in treaties. Advice to the contrary is wrong, and any actions which follow this advice are probably unlawful as well.

Kevin Drum adds:

But put aside the technical analysis and ask yourself: Why has torture been such a hot topic since 9/11? The United States has fought many wars over the past half century, and in each of them our causes were just as important as today's, information from prisoners would have been just as helpful, and we were every bit as determined to win as we are now. But we still didn't authorize torture of prisoners. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Reagan — all of them knew it wasn't right, and the rest of us knew it as well.

So what's different this time? Only one thing: the name of the man in the White House. Under this administration, we seem to have lost the simple level of moral clarity that allowed our predecessors to tell right from wrong. It's time to reclaim it.

I wonder if Mr. Bush will pay any sort of real political price this.

He never seems to.

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