By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
A Justice Department report focusing on possible ethics violations by Bush administration lawyers who approved waterboarding of terrorism suspects is still "a matter of weeks" from release, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told lawmakers yesterday.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Holder said that officials in the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which investigates allegations of attorney misconduct, are reworking the 200-page draft report and incorporating comments from lawyers who have been the focus of the investigation.
The conclusions of the five-year-long probe are hotly anticipated because they could shed new light on the interplay between the Bush White House, the Justice Department and the CIA in formulating an interrogation policy that critics assert included torture.
Key Senate Democrats and left-leaning interest groups yesterday exhorted Holder to pick up the pace. Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pointed out that the former government lawyers whose conduct is at issue had submitted their arguments six weeks ago.
"The American people have a right to know how the U.S. Justice Department came to issue legal opinions approving acts of cruelty that shocked the world, damaged U.S. moral authority and harmed efforts to combat terrorism effectively," Human Rights First and more than a half-dozen other activist groups wrote. "We urge you to release the OPR report now and send a clear message that transparency in government and adherence to the law are core American values as well as key assets to U.S. national security."
But the attorney general, apparently trying to lower expectations, cautioned lawmakers that the acting chief of the OPR, Mary Patrice Brown, was carefully examining the materials and that they eventually would require extensive declassification, adding even more time to the release date.
"One of the things that I think we want to do is to declassify as much of this report as we can so that when people read it, either in this body or the general public, they'll have a full feeling for what it is our lawyers in the Office of Professional Responsibility dealt with and what is the basis for the conclusions that they reach," Holder said.
Obama administration officials generally have advocated looking forward to new initiatives, rather than spending attention and scarce resources finding fault with their predecessors. The White House agenda already is packed with reforms to health care and foreign policy and other initiatives, so delaying a conversation about alleged torture that could inflame Republicans and polarize voters may be a desirable political move, analysts said.
A draft version of the report earlier this year recommended disciplinary referrals to state bar associations for two of the former department lawyers, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, but their supporters say the men acted in good faith based on their view of the anti-torture statutes. The conduct of another lawyer, Steven G. Bradbury, is also under review.
Independent experts disagree about the likelihood that the bar associations will bring cases against the men, and the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, where Yoo is licensed, has expired.
Criminal charges against the lawyers are unlikely, legal experts say, so the ethics report is one of few avenues to legal reckoning for officials who blessed or developed the Bush interrogation policies. Last week a federal judge in California allowed a former detainee to go ahead with a lawsuit alleging that Yoo violated his constitutional rights.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.