By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008
Two key architects of the Bush administration's controversial interrogation policies defended their legal positions yesterday, sparring with House Democrats over whether discredited Justice Department opinions led to mistreatment of military and CIA detainees.
The testimony from David S. Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and John C. Yoo, a former senior Justice Department lawyer, was light on new details but heavy on rhetorical disputes with members of a House Judiciary subcommittee. Both witnesses avoided direct answers to a host of questions about their roles in preparing the legal ground for harsh interrogation tactics while arguing that such methods had been crucial in preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil after Sept. 11, 2001.
"There is certainly room for disagreement among reasonable people, acting in good faith, on these questions," Yoo said in his prepared statement. "But I still believe we gave the best answers we could on the basis of the legal matters available to us."
Yoo was the main author of an August 2002 memo, later rescinded by the Justice Department, that narrowly defined torture as treatment resulting in "death, organ failure or serious impairment of bodily functions." In March 2003, Yoo wrote another memo arguing that federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming and other crimes did not apply to military interrogators who questioned al-Qaeda captives because the president's authority as commander in chief overrode such statutes.
Now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Yoo has written a book on his time at the Justice Department and has spoken regularly in defense of his legal opinions, which have been widely criticized by scholars from both political parties. Addington, in contrast, had not appeared before Congress to discuss the issue.
Addington, who has been widely described as one of the key forces behind the Bush administration's most aggressive counterterrorism policies, said some reports of his involvement were overstated. He said, for example, that he was briefed by Yoo about his 2002 memo but that he had no role in shaping it.
Addington also said he was more deeply involved in the CIA's interrogation program than the one used by the Pentagon at the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Under the CIA program, high-level detainees were kept in secret prisons abroad and subjected to harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning.
Much of the hearing was consumed by semantic or legalistic disputes, and the only two Republicans who attended complained that the Democrats were hectoring the witnesses. Yoo frequently said he could not discuss internal deliberations, citing instructions from the Justice Department.
Addington, who appeared at the hearing under subpoena, had tense exchanges with lawmakers. At one point, he said he was not familiar with the conservative legal theory of a "unitary executive," then went on to describe it as the Constitution's delegation of all executive power to the president.
In a tense exchange with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Addington asked sharply: "Is there a question pending, ma'am?" Addington then began suggesting another line of inquiry, prompting a sharp argument. "So I'm pretty clear on why I'm asking you the questions and which one I'm asking you," Schultz said.
As the hearing was winding down, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked Addington whether he would bear any responsibility "if the CIA program is found to be unlawful."
Addington responded: "Is that a moral question? A legal question?" Another debate ensued. "No, I wouldn't be responsible is the answer to your question," he concluded.
"Legal or moral," he added after Nadler had moved on.
Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.