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January 23-Late January, 2003: Navy General Counsel Shocked at Justice Department Torture Memo

The Navy’s general counsel, Alberto Mora, is shocked when he reads a legal opinion drafted by John Yoo, of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, about techniques that can be used in prisoner interrogations (see January 9, 2002). Mora has been fighting the use of questionable techniques and was part of a working group that was reviewing them (see January 15-22, 2003). The opinion was sought by Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes and not only counters every legal and moral argument Mora has brought to bear, but supersedes the working group. Only one copy of the opinion exists, kept in the office of the Air Force’s general counsel, Mary Walker, the head of the working group.
'Catastrophically Poor Legal Reasoning' - Mora reads it in Walker’s office with mounting horror. The opinion says nothing about prohibiting cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of detainees; in fact, it defends such tactics. While sophisticated, it displays “catastrophically poor legal reasoning,” he will later recall. Mora believes that it approaches the level of the notorious Supreme Court decision in Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 decision that upheld the government’s detention of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II. Mora is not aware that Yoo, like Haynes, is a member of an informal but extremely powerful “inner circle” dominated by David Addington, the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney. In fact, Yoo and Haynes are regular racquetball partners. Like Addington and Cheney, Yoo believes in virtually unrestricted executive powers during a time of war. Yoo wrote that almost any interrogation methods used against terror suspects is legally permissible, an argument that shocks Mora.
Mora's Response - In his June 2004 memo on the subject (see July 7, 2004), Mora will write, “The memo espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s Commander-in-Chief authority.” Yoo’s reasoning is “profoundly in error,” Mora concludes, and is “clearly at variance with applicable law.” In 2006, Mora will add, “If everything is permissible, and almost nothing is prohibited, it makes a mockery of the law.” He writes to Walker shortly thereafter, saying that not only is Yoo’s opinion “fundamentally in error” but “dangerous,” because it has the weight of law and can only be reversed by the Attorney General or the President. Walker writes back that she disagrees, and she believes Haynes does as well. Two weeks later, Mora will discuss the memo with Yoo (see February 6, 2003). [New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: William J. Haynes, David S. Addington, Alberto Mora, John C. Yoo, Mary L. Walker, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Defense, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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