Nearly 130 lawyers, retired judges and law school professors and a former director of the FBI yesterday condemned a series of U.S. government legal opinions holding that the torture of terrorism suspects might be legally defensible.

The lawyers signed a statement asking the Bush administration and Congress to investigate why the memos were prepared by administration lawyers, and whether there is a connection between the opinions and detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other detainee facilities.

"The position taken by the government lawyers in these legal memoranda amount to counseling a client as to how to get away with violating the law," said John J. Gibbons, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia and the attorney in the U.S. Supreme Court case that granted legal hearings to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Seven past presidents of the American Bar Association also signed the statement, as did William S. Sessions, director of the FBI from 1987 to 1993. The statement says the once-classified memos written by U.S. government lawyers sought to "circumvent long established and universally acknowledged principles of law and common decency."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, attorneys for the White House, the Justice Department and the Defense Department wrote memos arguing that traditional laws of war should not always apply in fighting terrorists. Some of the memos went further, arguing that extreme physical and mental duress could be inflicted on detainees by narrowing the legal definition of torture.

Bush administration officials have distanced themselves from those opinions, saying that they were theoretical legal explorations and that the president never authorized the torture of suspected al Qaeda terrorists or Taliban fighters.