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Context of 'February 21, 2009: Head of Abu Ghraib Investigation Says US Needs Commission to Investigate Bush Torture, Detention Policies'

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Bradford Berenson.Bradford Berenson. [Source: PBS]In the weeks following 9/11, government lawyers begin to formulate a legal response to the newly perceived threat of terrorism. Four related issues are at hand: forceful prevention, detention, prosecution, and interrogation. What degree of force can the government employ to prevent acts of terrorism or apprehend suspected terrorists? How and where can it best detain terrorists if captured? How can it best bring them to trial? And how can it best obtain information from them on terrorist organizations and plots? These questions are handled in a new atmosphere that is more tolerant towards flexible interpretations of the law. Bradford Berenson, an associate White House counsel at this time, later recalls: “Legally, the watchword became ‘forward-leaning’ by which everybody meant: ‘We want to be aggressive. We want to take risks.’” [New York Times, 10/24/2004] This attitude is seemingly in line with the president’s thinking. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later recall President Bush saying, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We are going to kick some ass” (see (9:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [Clarke, 2004, pp. 23-24] At the center of legal reconstruction work are Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, his deputy Timothy E. Flanigan, and David S. Addington, legal counsel to Vice President Cheney. [New York Times, 12/19/2004] They will find a helpful hand in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), most notably its head, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee [Los Angeles Times, 6/10/2004] and his deputies John C. Yoo [New York Times, 8/15/2004] and Patrick F. Philbin. Most of the top government lawyers dwell in fairly conservative circles, with many being a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal fraternity. Some have clerked for conservative Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whose ruling effectively lead to the presidency being awarded to George W. Bush after the 2000 presidential election. [New York Times, 10/24/2004] Others worked for Judge Lawrence H. Silberman, who set up secret contacts with the Iranian government under President Reagan leading to the Iran-Contra scandal, and who advised on pursuing allegations of sexual misconduct by President Clinton. [Inter Press Service, 2/6/2004]

Entity Tags: Patrick F. Philbin, Richard A. Clarke, John C. Yoo, Joan Claybrook, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bradford Berenson, Jay S. Bybee, Alan M. Dershowitz, Rena Steinzor

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

At a private lunch meeting, Vice President Cheney presents President Bush with a four-page memo, written in strict secrecy by lawyer John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (see November 6-10, 2001), and a draft executive order that establishes military commissions for the trial of suspected terrorists (see November 10, 2001). The legal brief mandates that foreign terrorism suspects held in US custody have no access to any courts whatsoever, civil, criminal, military, domestic, or foreign. They can be detained indefinitely without charges. If they are to be tried, they can be tried in closed “military commissions.” [White House, 11/13/2001; Savage, 2007, pp. 138; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Military Commissions Suitable to 'Unitary Executive' Agenda - According to author Craig Unger, military commissions are a key element of Cheney’s drive towards a “unitary executive,” the accretion of governmental powers to the presidency at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. Federal trials for terror suspects would put them under all the legal procedures provided under the US judicial system, an unacceptable alternative. Military courts-martial would give them the rights granted by the Geneva Conventions. Military commissions, however, are essentially tribunals operating outside of both civilian and military law. Defendants have few rights. Secret evidence can be admitted without being disclosed to the defendants. Hearsay and coerced testimony are admissible. Prisoners can be held indefinitely. [Unger, 2007, pp. 221-222]
No Bureaucratic Footprints - After Bush peruses the memo and the draft order, Cheney takes them back with him to his office. After leaving Bush, Cheney takes extraordinary steps to ensure that no evidence of his involvement remains. The order passes from Cheney to his chief counsel David Addington, and then to associate White House counsel Bradford Berenson. At Berenson, the provenance of the order breaks, as no one tells him of its origin. Berenson rushes the order to deputy staff secretary Stuart Bowen with instructions to prepare it for signature immediately, without advance distribution to Bush’s top advisers. Bowen objects, saying that he had handled thousands of presidential documents without ever sidestepping the strict procedures governing coordination and review. Bowen relents only after being subjected to what he will later recall as “rapid, urgent persuasion” that Bush is standing by to sign and that the order is too sensitive to delay. Berenson will later say he understood that “someone had briefed” Bush “and gone over it” already. “I don’t know who that was.” When it is returned to Bush’s office later in the day, Bush signs it immediately (see November 13, 2001). Virtually no one else has seen the text of the memo. The Cheney/Yoo proposal has become a military order from the commander in chief.
Dodging Proper Channels - The government has had an interagency working group, headed by Pierre Prosper, the ambassador at large for war crimes, working on the same question (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001). But Cheney and Addington have refused to have any contact with Prosper’s group; one of Cheney’s team later says, “The interagency [group] was just constipated.” Cheney leapfrogged over Prosper’s group with their own proposal, performing an adroit bureaucratic move that puts their proposal in place without any oversight whatsoever, and cutting Prosper’s group entirely out of the process. When the news of the order is broadcast on CNN, Secretary of State Colin Powell demands, “What the hell just happened?” An angry Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, sends an aide to find out. Virtually no one, even witnesses to the presidential signing, know that Cheney promulgated the order. In 2007, Washington Post reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker will call the episode “a defining moment in Cheney’s tenure” as vice president. Cheney has little Constitutional power, but his deft behind-the-scenes manuevering and skilled bureaucratic gamesmanship enable him to pull off coups like this one, often leaving even the highest White House officials none the wiser. “[H]e has found a ready patron in George W. Bush for edge-of-the-envelope views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert,” the reporters write. [White House, 11/13/2001; Unger, 2007, pp. 221-222; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Quiet Contravening of US Law - Six years later, Unger will observe that few inside or outside Washington realize that Cheney has, within a matter of days, contravened and discarded two centuries of American law. He has given the president, in the words of former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, “the functions of judge, jury, and prosecutor in the trial of war crimes [and] the authority to detain American citizens as enemy combatants indefinitely… a frightening power indistinguishable from King Louis XIV’s execrated lettres de cachet that occasioned the storming of the Bastille.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 223-224]

Entity Tags: Stuart W. Bowen, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo, David S. Addington, George W. Bush, Barton Gellman, Bradford Berenson, Jo Becker, Bruce Fein, Condoleezza Rice, Craig Unger, Colin Powell, Pierre-Richard Prosper

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Deputy Assistant Attorney Generals Patrick Philbin and John Yoo send a memorandum to Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes offering the legal opinion that US courts do not have jurisdiction to review the detention of foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Therefore detentions of persons there cannot be challenged in a US court of law. The memo is endorsed by the Department of Defense and White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales. [Newsweek, 5/24/2004] The memo addresses “the question whether a federal district court would properly have jurisdiction to entertain a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of an alien detained at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” The conclusion of Philbin and Yoo is that it cannot, based primarily on their interpretation of a decision by the US Supreme Court in the 1950 Eisentrager case, in which the Supreme Court determined that no habeas petition should be honored if the prisoners concerned are seized, tried, and held in territory that is outside of the sovereignty of the US and outside the territorial jurisdiction of any court of the US. Both conditions apply to Guantanamo according to Philbin and Yoo. Approvingly, they quote the US Attorney General in 1929, who stated that Guantanamo is “a mere governmental outpost beyond our borders.” A number of cases, quoted by the authors, “demonstrate that the United States has consistently taken the position that [Guantanamo Bay] remains foreign territory, not subject to US sovereignty.” Guantanamo is indeed land leased from the state of Cuba, and therefore in terms of legal possession and formal sovereignty still part of Cuba. But Philbin and Yoo acknowledge a problem with the other condition: namely that the territory is outside the US’s jurisdiction. They claim with certainty that Guantanamo “is also outside the ‘territorial jurisdiction of any court of the United States.’” However, the Supreme Court should not have made a distinction between jurisdiction and sovereignty here; the wording of the decision is really, Philbin and Yoo believe, an inaccurate reflection of its intent: “an arguable imprecision in the Supreme Court’s language.” For that reason, they call for caution. “A non-frivolous argument might be constructed, however, that [Guantanamo Bay], while not be part of sovereign territory of the United States, is within the territorial jurisdiction of a federal court.” [US Department of Justice, 12/28/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Alberto R. Gonzales, Patrick F. Philbin, William J. Haynes

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

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

Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), signs off on a secret opinion that approves a long, disturbing list of harsh interrogation techniques proposed by the CIA. The list includes waterboarding, a form of near-drowning that some consider mock execution, and which has been prosecuted as a war crime in the US since at least 1901. The list only forbids one proposed technique: burying a prisoner alive (see February 4-5, 2004). Yoo concludes that such harsh tactics do not fall under the 1984 Convention Against Torture (see October 21, 1994 and July 22, 2002) because they will not be employed with “specific intent” to torture. Also, the methods do not fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because “a state cannot be bound by treaties to which it has not consented”; also, since the interrogations do not constitute a “widespread and systematic” attack on civilian populations, and since neither Taliban nor al-Qaeda detainees are considered prisoners of war (see February 7, 2002), the ICC has no purview. The same day that Yoo sends his memo, Yoo’s boss, OLC chief Jay Bybee, sends a classified memo to the CIA regarding the interrogation of al-Qaeda members and including information detailing “potential interrogation methods and the context in which their use was contemplated” (see August 1, 2002). [US Department of Justice, 8/1/2002; Washington Post, 6/25/2007; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] Yoo will later claim that he warns White House lawyers, as well as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that it would be dangerous to allow military interrogators to use the harshest interrogation techniques, because the military might overuse the techniques or exceed the limitations. “I always thought that only the CIA should do this, but people at the White House and at [the Defense Department] felt differently,” Yoo will later say. Yoo’s words are prophetic: such excessively harsh techniques will be used by military interrogators at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. [Washington Post, 6/25/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Convention Against Torture, Donald Rumsfeld, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba submits the final version of his report (see February 26, 2004) on the investigation into prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib by MPs. He concludes that military intelligence personnel played a part in the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But due to the fact that his investigation was limited to the conduct of MPs (see January 19, 2004), he did not investigate military intelligence conduct. Another investigation (see August 25, 2004), however, is launched that will examine military intelligence’s role in the abuses. It will be conducted by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence. But the scope of this investigation is also limited from the outset, for two reasons. First, as a two-star general, he cannot hold any officer of his own rank or higher accountable. Second, Fay is appointed by Lt. Col. Ricardo S. Sanchez and therfore the scope of investigation is limited to the people under Sanchez’s command. [Newsweek, 6/7/2004] Additionally, Fay may be less inclined to report negatively on military intelligence personnel, since his superior, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, head of Army Intelligence, has already stated that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was committed by “a group of undisciplined military police” who were acting on their own, and not upon instructions from military intelligence officers. [Truthout (.org), 5/14/2004]

Entity Tags: George R. Fay, Ricardo S. Sanchez, Antonio M. Taguba, Keith Alexander

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Retired Major General Anthony Taguba, who headed an intensive military investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison (see March 9, 2004), is one of the most prominent supporters of the call to investigate the Bush administration’s interrogation, detention, and torture policies. Taguba joins 18 human rights organizations, former State Department officials, former law enforcement officers, and former military leaders in asking President Obama to create a non-partisan commission to investigate those abuses. Even though prosecuting former Bush officials might be difficult, Taguba says, a commission would provide some measure of accountability for the practices Taguba calls “misguided,” “illegal,” “despicable and questionable.” Taguba wants the commission to study the Bush administration’s claims that torture provides good intelligence, which he disputes. He particularly wants the commission to investigate administration officials’ claims that the administration’s policies were legal. Taguba says he supports “a structured commission with some form of authority with clear objectives and a follow-on action plan. I’m not looking for anything that is prosecutorial in nature, unless a suspected violation of relevant laws occurred, which should be referred to the Department of Justice.… In my opinion, our military prosecuted those who were involved in torture or unlawful interrogation. And I think our military has come to terms with that. We are an institution that prides itself on taking corrective action immediately, admitting to it, and holding ourselves accountable. And we have done that. But I am not so sure that our civilian authorities in government have done that for themselves.” Speaking about the Bush Justice Department’s findings that torture and indefinite detentions are legal (see Late September 2001, November 11-13, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, August 1, 2002, and August 1, 2002), Taguba says: “This notion that a lot of constitutional legal experts—lawyers with great intellect, well educated—came up with such despicable and questionable legal findings that were contrary to the definition of defending the Constitution? And then they framed this as if the executive branch had the authority to extend beyond the constitution to establish a policy of torture and illegal detention?… Some of those that were tortured were innocent. How do we come to terms with those that were cruelly mistreated and were innocent, never charged, were illegally detained, and never compensated for their suffering? This is not a political issue, but a moral and ethical dilemma which has far-reaching implications.” [Salon, 2/21/2009]

Entity Tags: Antonio M. Taguba

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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