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Context of 'February 2006: Former Navy General Counsel Says Administration’s Response to 9/11 Flawed from Beginning, Led to Torture'

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John Yoo, a neoconservative lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel serving as deputy assistant attorney general, writes a classified memo to senior Pentagon counsel William J. Haynes, titled “Application of Treaties and Law to al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” [New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Yoo: Geneva Conventions Do Not Apply in War on Terror - Yoo’s memo, written in conjunction with fellow Justice Department lawyer Robert Delahunty, echoes arguments by another Justice Department lawyer, Patrick Philbin, two months earlier (see November 6, 2001). Yoo states that, in his view, the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions, do not apply to captured Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners, nor do they apply to the military commissions set up to try such prisoners.
Geneva Superseded by Presidential Authority - Yoo’s memo goes even farther, arguing that no international laws apply to the US whatsoever, because they do not have any status under US federal law. “As a result,” Yoo and Delahunty write, “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the president or the US armed forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” In essence, Yoo and Delahunty argue that President Bush and the US military have carte blanche to conduct the global war on terrorism in any manner they see fit, without the restrictions of law or treaty. However, the memo says that while the US need not follow the rules of war, it can and should prosecute al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees for violating those same laws—a legal double standard that provokes sharp criticism when the memo comes to light in May 2004 (see May 21, 2004). Yoo and Delahunty write that while this double standard may seem “at first glance, counter-intuitive,” such expansive legal powers are a product of the president’s constitutional authority “to prosecute the war effectively.” The memo continues, “Restricting the president’s plenary power over military operations (including the treatment of prisoners)” would be “constitutionally dubious.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002; US Department of Justice, 6/9/2002 pdf file; Newsweek, 5/21/2004; New York Times, 5/21/2004]
Overriding International Legal Concerns - Yoo warns in the memo that international law experts may not accept his reasoning, as there is no legal precedent giving any country the right to unilaterally ignore its commitment to Geneva or any other such treaty, but Yoo writes that Bush, by invoking “the president’s commander in chief and chief executive powers to prosecute the war effectively,” can simply override any objections. “Importing customary international law notions concerning armed conflict would represent a direct infringement on the president’s discretion as commander in chief and chief executive to determine how best to conduct the nation’s military affairs.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 146] The essence of Yoo’s argument, a Bush official later says, is that the law “applies to them, but it doesn’t apply to us.” [Newsweek, 5/21/2004] Navy general counsel Alberto Mora later says of the memo that it “espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the president’s commander-in-chief authority.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 181]
White House Approval - White House counsel and future Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agrees (see January 25, 2002), saying, “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” [Mother Jones, 1/9/2002]
Spark for Prisoner Abuses - Many observers believe that Yoo’s memo is the spark for the torture and prisoner abuses later reported from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (see Evening November 7, 2003), Guantanamo Bay (see December 28, 2001), and other clandestine prisoner detention centers (see March 2, 2007). The rationale is that since Afghanistan is what Yoo considers a “failed state,” with no recognizable sovereignity, its militias do not have any status under any international treaties. [Newsweek, 5/21/2004; Newsweek, 5/24/2004]
Resistance from Inside, Outside Government - Within days, the State Department will vehemently protest the memo, but to no practical effect (see January 25, 2002).

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Robert J. Delahunty, US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Taliban, John C. Yoo, Colin Powell, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush, Alberto Mora, US Department of State, Alberto R. Gonzales, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

An aerial shot of Camp X-Ray.An aerial shot of Camp X-Ray. [Source: Public domain]The US prison camp at Guantanamo receives its first 20 prisoners from the Afghan battlefield. [Reuters, 1/11/2002] The prisoners are flown on a C-141 Starlifter cargo plane, escorted during the final leg of the journey by a Navy assault helicopter and a naval patrol boat. The prisoners, hooded, shackled, wearing blackout goggles and orange jumpsuits, and possibly drugged, are escorted one by one off the plane by scores of Marines in full battle gear. They are interred in what reporter Charlie Savage will later call “kennel-like outdoor cages” in the makeshift containment facility dubbed Camp X-Ray. [Guardian, 1/11/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 142-143]
Leaked Photos of Transfer Cause International Outcry - Pictures of prisoners being transferred in conditions clearly in violation of international law are later leaked, prompting an outcry. But rather than investigating the inhumane transfer, the Pentagon will begin investigating how the pictures were leaked. [Associated Press, 11/9/2002]
Guantanamo Chosen to Keep Prisoners out of US Jurisdiction - The prisoners are sent to this base—leased by Cuba to the US—because it is on foreign territory and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of US law (see December 28, 2001). [Globe and Mail, 9/5/2002] It was once a coaling station used by the US Navy, and in recent years had been used by Coast Guard helicopters searching for drug runners and refugees trying to make it across the Florida Straits to US soil. In 1998, the Clinton administration had briefly considered and then rejected a plan to bring some prisoners from Kosovo to Guantanamo. Guantanamo was chosen as an interim prison for Afghanis who survived the uprising at Mazar-e Sharif prison (see 11:25 a.m. November 25, 2001) by an interagency working group (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001), who considered and rejected facilities in Germany and other European countries. Group leader Pierre-Richard Prosper will later recall: “We looked at our military bases in Europe and ruled that out because (a), we’d have to get approval from a European government, and (b), we’d have to deal with the European Court of Human Rights and we didn’t know how they’d react. We didn’t want to lose control over it and have it become a European process because it was on European soil. And so we kept looking around and around, and basically someone said, ‘What about Guantanamo?’” The base may well have not been the final choice of Prosper’s group; it was still researching a Clinton-era attempt to house Haitian and Cuban refugees there that had been challenged in court when Rumsfeld unilaterally made the decision to begin transferring prisoners to the naval base. [Savage, 2007, pp. 143-144]
No Geneva Convention Strictures Apply to 'Unlawful Combatants' - Rumsfeld, acting on the advice of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, publicly declares the detainees “unlawful combatants” and thereby not entitled to the rights of the Geneva Conventions. “Unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention,” Rumsfeld says. Though, according to Rumsfeld, the government will “for the most part treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions, to the extent they are appropriate.” [Reuters, 1/11/2002] There is no reason to feel sorry for these detainees, says Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He states, “These are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines at the back of a C-17 to bring it down.” [New York Times, 6/21/2004]
British Officials: 'Scandalous' - Senior British officials privately call the treatment of prisoners “scandalous,” and one calls the refusal to follow the Geneva Convention “not benchmarks of a civilized society.” [Guardian, 6/13/2002]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Navy, United States, US Department of Defense, Pierre-Richard Prosper, Richard B. Myers, Clinton administration, Donald Rumsfeld, Charlie Savage, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

David Brant, the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), approaches Naval General Counsel Alberto Mora about the abuse of detainees in US custody at Guantanamo, abuse perhaps authorized at a “high level” in Washington. Brant is in charge of a team of NCIS agents working with the FBI at Guantanamo, called the Criminal Investigative Task Force. The task force’s job is to obtain incriminating information from the detainees for use in future trials or tribunals.
Troubling Information - Brant has learned troubling information about the interrogations at Guantanamo (see Early December, 2002). Brant had never discussed anything so sensitive with Mora before, and later recalls, “I wasn’t sure how he would react.” Brant had already discussed the allegations of abuse with Army officials, since they have command authority over the detainees, and to Air Force officials as well, but goes to Mora after deciding that no one in either branch seems to care. He is not hopeful that Mora will feel any differently.
Worried about Abuse - Brant goes to Mora because, he will recall, he didn’t want his investigators to “in any way observe, condone, or participate in any level of physical or in-depth psychological abuse. No slapping, deprivation of water, heat, dogs, psychological abuse. It was pretty basic, black and white to me.… I didn’t know or care what the rules were that had been set by the Department of Defense at that point. We were going to do what was morally, ethically, and legally permissible.” Brant had ordered his task force members to “stand clear and report” any abusive tactics that they might witness.
Mora 'Rocked' - Brant is not disappointed in Mora’s reactions. A military official who works closely with Brant will later recall that the news “rocked” Mora. The official will add that Mora “was visionary about this,” adding, “He quickly grasped the fact that these techniques in the hands of people with this little training spelled disaster.” Brant asks if Mora wants to hear more about the situation; Mora will write in a 2004 memo (see July 7, 2004), “I responded that I felt I had to.”
Second Meeting - Brant meets with Mora the next day, and shows Mora part of the transcript of the [Mohamed al-Khatani] interrogations. Mora is shocked when Brant tells him that the abuse was not “rogue activity,” but apparently sanctioned by the highest levels in the Bush administration. Mora will write in his memo, “I was under the opinion that the interrogation activities described would be unlawful and unworthy of the military services.” Mora will recall in a 2006 interview: “I was appalled by the whole thing. It was clearly abusive, and it was clearly contrary to everything we were ever taught about American values.” Shocked, Mora will learn more from his counterpart in the Army (see December 18, 2002), and determine that the abusive practices need to be terminated.
Meeting with Pentagon Lawyer - He will bring his concerns to the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes, and will leave that meeting hopeful that Haynes will put an end to the extreme measures being used at Guantanamo (see December 20, 2002). But when Mora returns from Christmas vacation, he will learn that Haynes has done nothing. Mora will continue to argue against the torture of detainees (see Early January, 2003). [New Yorker, 2/27/2006; Vanity Fair, 5/2008]

Entity Tags: William J. Haynes, David Brant, Alberto Mora, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Alberto Mora, the Navy’s general counsel, has learned that possibly illegal interrogation techniques are being used against Guantanamo Bay detainees (see December 17-18, 2002). After getting the authorization of Gordon England, the secretary of the Navy, Mora meets with the Pentagon’s general counsel, William J. Haynes, in Haynes’s Pentagon office.
Meeting with Pentagon Counsel - In 2006, Mora will recall telling Haynes in the meeting that whatever its intent, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to allow extreme interrogation techniques (see December 2, 2002) is “torture.” Haynes replies, “No, it isn’t.” Mora asks Haynes to reconsider his opinions. For example, what does “deprivation of light and auditory stimuli” mean? Detention in a completely dark cell? For how long? Until he goes blind? And what does the phrase “exploitation of phobias” entail? Could it mean holding a detainee in a coffin? Threatening him with dogs, or rats? Can an interrogator drive a detainee insane? Mora notes that at the bottom of Rumsfeld’s memo, he asks why a detainee can be forced to stand for no longer than four hours a day when he himself often stands “for 8-10 hours a day.” While Rumsfeld may have intended to be humorous, Mora notes that Rumsfeld’s comment could be used as a defense argument in future terrorist trials. (In 2006, Lawrence Wilkerson will say of Rumsfeld’s comment: “It said, ‘Carte blanche, guys.’ That’s what started them down the slope. You’ll have My Lais then. Once you pull this thread, the whole fabric unravels.”) Mora leaves the office hoping that Haynes will come around to his point of view and convince Rumsfeld to withdraw the memo. He will be sharply disappointed (see July 7, 2004). [New Yorker, 2/27/2006] He later calls the interrogation practices “unlawful and unworthy of the military services.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 179]
Haynes Close to Cheney's Office - Mora may not be aware that in meeting with Haynes, he is also in effect engaging the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. Haynes is a protege of Cheney’s neoconservative chief of staff, David Addington. Haynes worked as Addington’s special assistant when Addington served under then-Defense Secretary Cheney in 1989, and Addington promoted Haynes to the office of general counsel of the Army. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, Haynes was awarded the position of the Pentagon’s general counsel. Addington has played key roles in almost all of the administration’s legal arguments in favor of extreme interrogation techniques and detainee policies. One former government lawyer will describe Addington as “the Octopus” because his hands seem to reach into every legal issue. Many of Haynes’s colleagues know that information moves rapidly between Haynes’s and Cheney’s offices. While not a hardline neoconservative like Addington and many other Cheney staffers, Haynes is, as one former Pentagon colleague will call him, “pliant” to serving the agenda of the vice president. [New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: Alberto Mora, Gordon England, David S. Addington, William J. Haynes, Lawrence Wilkerson, Donald Rumsfeld, US Department of Defense, George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Alberto Mora, the Navy’s general counsel, meets for a second time with Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes, who he had tried unsuccessfully to convince to join him in opposing the use of extreme interrogation methods at Guantanamo (see December 20, 2002). Mora will write in a June 2004 memo (see July 7, 2004) that when he tells Haynes how disappointed he is that nothing has been done to stop abuse at Guantanamo, Haynes retorts that “US officials believed the techniques were necessary to obtain information,” and that the interrogations might prevent future attacks against the US and save American lives. Mora acknowledges that he can imagine any number of “ticking bomb” scenarios where it might be the proper, if not the legal, thing to torture suspects. But, he asks, how many lives must be saved to justify torture? Hundreds? Thousands? Where do we draw the line? Shouldn’t there be a public debate on the issue? Mora is doubtful that anyone at Guantanamo would be involved in such a scenario, since almost all of the Guantanamo detainees have been in custody for over a year. He also warns Haynes that the legal opinions the administration is using will probably not stand up in court. If that is the case, then US officials could face criminal charges. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could find himself in court; the presidency itself could be damaged. “Protect your client!” he says. When Haynes relates Mora’s concerns to Rumsfeld, according to a former administration official, Rumsfeld responds with jokes about how gentle the interrogation techniques are. “Torture?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s not torture!” He himself stands for up to ten hours a day, he says, and prisoners are not allowed to stand for over four. The official will recall, “His attitude was, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Mora continues to push his arguments, but, as a former Pentagon colleague will recall: “people were beginning to roll their eyes. It was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve already heard this.’” [New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: William J. Haynes, Alberto Mora, US Department of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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

Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora writes a secret, but unclassified, memo to Vice Admiral Albert Church, who led a Pentagon investigation into abuses at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Mora writes the memo in an attempt to stop what he sees as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruel and inhuman treatment of terror suspects. The memo details in chronological fashion Mora’s earlier attempts to speak out against the Bush administration’s decision to circumvent the Geneva Conventions (see January 9, 2002 and January 11, 2002).
Specific Problems - Mora, a veteran of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and a strong supporter of the “war on terror,” argues that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward US-held terrorist suspects is an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also writes that the Bush administration’s legal arguments that justify an expansion of executive power in everything from interrogations to warrantless wiretapping are “unlawful,” “dangerous,” and “erroneous” legal theories. Not only are they wrong in granting President Bush the right to authorize torture, he warns that they may leave US personnel open to criminal prosecution. While the administration has argued that it holds to humane, legal standards in interrogation practices (see January 12, 2006), Mora’s memo shows that from the outset of the administration’s “war on terror,” the White House, the Justice Department, and the Defense Department intentionally skirted and at times ignored domestic and international laws surrounding interrogation and detention of prisoners.
Cruelty and Torture - Mora will later recall the mood in the Pentagon: “The mentality was that we lost three thousand Americans [on 9/11], and we could lose a lot more unless something was done. It was believed that some of the Guantanamo detainees had knowledge of other 9/11-like operations that were under way, or would be executed in the future. The gloves had to come off. The US had to get tougher.” But, Mora will say, the authorization of cruel treatment of detainees is as pernicious as any defined torture techniques that have been used. “To my mind, there’s no moral or practical distinction,” he says. “If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America—even those designated as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’ If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles. It’s a transformative issue.… The debate here isn’t only how to protect the country. It’s how to protect our values.” [Mora, 7/7/2004 pdf file; New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Defense, Alberto Mora, Albert T. Church III, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

After Human Rights Watch, an organization which works to end torture of government detainees around the globe, claims that the Bush administration has made a “deliberate policy choice” to abuse detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says, “What took place at Guantanamo is a matter of public record today, and the investigations turned up nothing that suggested that there was any policy in the department other than humane treatment.” In 2002, President Bush declared that detainees in US custody should be treated “humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles” of the Geneva Conventions (see January 19, 2002). Shortly after Rumsfeld’s statement, White House press secretary Scott McClellan says that Human Rights Watch has damaged its own credibility by making such claims. [New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: Donald Rumsfeld, Bush administration (43), Human Rights Watch, Scott McClellan, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

The Navy’s former general counsel, Alberto Mora, now the general counsel for Wal-Mart’s international operations, ends a long, self-imposed silence about his opposition to the military’s advocacy of torture and abuse of terror suspects (see July 7, 2004). Mora tells New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer that the administration’s legal response to the 9/11 attacks was flawed from the outset, triggering a series of subsequent errors and misjudgments that were virtually impossible to correct. In particular, the determination to ignore the Geneva Conventions “was a legal and policy mistake,” but “very few lawyers could argue to the contrary once the decision had been made.” Mora continues, “It seemed odd to me that the actors weren’t more troubled by what they were doing.” Many administration lawyers seemed to be ignorant of history. “I wondered if they were even familiar with the Nuremberg trials—or with the laws of war, or with the Geneva Conventions. They cut many of the experts on those areas out. The State Department [whose lawyers and officials often opposed the use of abusive interrogation tactics] wasn’t just on the back of the bus—it was left off the bus.… [P]eople were afraid that more 9/11s would happen, so getting the information became the overriding objective. But there was a failure to look more broadly at the ramifications. These were enormously hardworking, patriotic individuals. When you put together the pieces, it’s all so sad. To preserve flexibility, they were willing to throw away our values.” [New Yorker, 2/27/2006]

Entity Tags: Geneva Conventions, US Department of State, Alberto Mora, Jane Mayer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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