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National Lawyers Guild White Paper on the Law of Torture and Accountability

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WHITE PAPER ON THE LAW OF TORTURE AND HOLDING ACCOUNTABLE
THOSE WHO ARE COMPLICIT IN APPROVING TORTURE
OF PERSONS IN U.S. CUSTODY
National Lawyers Guild
International Association of Democratic Lawyers
This paper provides the background to the legal issues underpinning the call by the National
Lawyers Guild (NLG) to prosecute and dismiss from their jobs people like then Deputy Assistant
Attorney General John Choon Yoo, 1 then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee 2 and others who
participated in the drafting of memoranda claimed to be based on sound legal precedent that
purported to authorize the commitment of acts of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment 3 on behalf of the U.S. government. The memoranda were written at the request of high
ranking U.S. officials in order to insulate them from the risk of future prosecution for subjecting
detainees in U.S. custody to torture. By logical extension, this paper explains why all those who
approved the use of torture and committed it—whether ordering it, approving it or giving
purported legal advice to justify it—are subject to prosecution under international and U.S.
domestic law.
The prohibition of torture is a jus cogens norm (these are principles of international law so
fundamental that no nation may ignore them or attempt to contract out of them through treaties).
The United States has consistently prohibited the use of torture through its Constitution, laws,
executive statements and judicial decisions and by ratifying international treaties that prohibit it.
The prohibition against torture applies to all persons in U.S. custody in times of peace, armed
conflict, or state of emergency. In other words, the prohibition is absolute. However, the legal
memoranda drafted by government lawyers purposely or recklessly misconstrued and/or ignored
jus cogens, customary international law, and various U.S. treaty obligations in order to justify the
unjustifiable, claiming that clearly unlawful interrogation “techniques” were lawful.

1

Yoo is currently a Professor of Law at the Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley. The NLG
is not advocating that Yoo be dismissed for engaging in lawful First Amendment Speech as a Professor of Law. On
the contrary, the Guild is calling for Yoo’s prosecution, disbarment, and dismissal for his actions as Deputy
Assistant Attorney General.

2
3

Bybee is currently a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

What is commonly referred to as the Convention Against Torture, as well as other treaties to which the U.S. is a
party, in fact prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The term “torture”
will be generally used in this paper, but no discussion of the prohibitions should be limited to it.

I. THE PROHIBITION AGAINST TORTURE IS A JUS COGENS NORM.
The prohibition against torture is a jus cogens norm. 4 Jus cogens are defined as norms “accepted
and recognized by the international community of states as a whole ... from which no derogation
is permitted…” 5 In international criminal law, the legal duties that arise in connection with
crimes designated as violations of jus cogens norms include the duty to prosecute or extradite,
the non-applicability of statutes of limitations, the non-applicability of any immunities up to and
including those enjoyed by Heads of State, the non-applicability of the defense of "obedience to
superior orders" and universal jurisdiction over perpetrators of such crimes. Other jus cogens
norms include the prohibitions against slavery, genocide, and wars of aggression. Jus cogens
norms, like customary international law norms, are legally binding. No affirmative executive act
may undercut the force of these prohibitions nor may a legislature legalize crimes designated as
violating jus cogens norms or immunizing from prosecution those responsible. Jus cogens norms
differ from norms which have attained the status of customary international law by dint of their
universal and non-derogable character and the fact that jus cogens norms are peremptory, that is,
they trump any other inconsistent international law.
While legal scholars often differ as to what specific acts can be defined as being subject to jus
cogens norms, it is beyond dispute that the prohibition against torture has attained that status. 6
The right to be free from torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment was recognized in
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is contained in Article 7 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 5(2) of the American
Convention on Human Rights. Torture is also outlawed under the Rome Statute which created
the International Criminal Court (ICC). The U.S. Army Field Manual 34-52 makes clear that
techniques of interrogation are to be established under the rules laid out by The Hague and
Geneva Conventions. Field Manual 34-52 is unambiguous in its prohibition on the use of torture
and any other force in interrogation of prisoners.
Article 17 of the 1949 Geneva Convention III prohibits physical or mental torture and any other
coercive action against prisoners of war, and Article 130 classifies violation of Article 17 as a
grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying
4

See, e.g., Siderman de Blake v. Republic of Argentina, 965 F.2d 699, 714 (9th Cir. 1992); Regina v. Bow Street
Metro. Stipendiary Magistrate Ex Parte Pinochet Ugarte (No. 3), [2000] 1 AC 147, 198; see also Restatement
(Third) of Foreign Relations Law of the United States § 702(d) (“torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading
treatment or punishment”) reporters' note 5.

5

6

Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, May 23, 1969, art. 53, 8 I.L.M. 679, 698-99 (1969).

See Siderman de Blake v. Republic of Argentina, 965 F.2d 699, 717 (9th Cir. 1992) ("The right to be free from
official torture is fundamental and universal, a right deserving of the highest status under international law, a norm
of jus cogens.") ; Restatement, supra note 4; Human Rights Committee (of the ICCPR), General Comment No. 24,
para. 8, U.N. Doc. CCPR/c/21/REV.1/add.6 (1994) (also noting that attempted reservations to the ICCPR that would
permit torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are void as a matter of law).

power from torturing protected persons (Article 32) or engaging in all other “measures of
brutality” (Article 283). Common Article 3 (that is, Article 3 in each of the conventions)
prohibits torture as well as the separate crimes of inhuman, humiliating and degrading treatment
against those who are taking no active part in hostilities, members of armed forces who have laid
down their arms, or those who are hors de combat.
The 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or
Punishment (Torture Convention or CAT) codified the prohibitions against torture into specific
rules. The Convention “prohibits torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment
or punishment.” It criminalizes torture and seeks to end impunity for any torturer by denying him
all possible refuge. The Convention is categorical: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,
whether a state of war, or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public
emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”
The prohibition against torture has attained jus cogens status. This means we must examine the
actions of Yoo and the others who sought to provide legal cover for acts in violation of the
prohibition through a lens which acknowledges that they violated a norm which the world has
universally declared to be part of the highest and most compelling law. Because it is a jus cogens
norm, no world leader has the right to resort to torture, nor may a legislature attempt to legalize
it, nor may an official of the government use it. Indeed, if the rule of law is to have real meaning,
it demands severe consequences for anyone who transgresses.
II. THE CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE, THE TORTURE STATUTE,
AND THE WAR CRIMES ACT
As noted above, one of the processes which helped confer jus cogens status on torture was the
ratification by the U.S. of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 7
and the Torture Convention. 8 The U.N. General Assembly adopted the CAT in 1984 to
strengthen existing prohibitions against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading
treatment. 9 On October 21, 1994, the United States ratified Convention, which expressly
7

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 7, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (ratified by the
United States on June 8, 1992)
.

8

Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Dec. 10, 1984, art.
8, S. Treaty Doc. No. 100-20, (1988), 1465 U.N.T.S. 85 G.A. Res. 39/46, U.N. GAOR, 39th Sess., Supp. No. 51, at
197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), reprinted in 23 I.L.M. 1027 (1984).

9

See J. Herman Burgers & Hans Danelius, A Handbook on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1 (1988).

prohibits torture under all circumstances. The 1999 decision by the House of Lords to extradite
Augusto Pinochet for prosecution for promoting and condoning acts of torture committed during
his regime was based in part on the existence of the Convention and its contribution to the
recognition of torture as a jus cogens norm. 10
Torture is defined in Article 1 of the Convention as:
1. Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is
intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a
third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third
person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or
coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any
kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the
consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official
capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or
incidental to lawful sanctions.
2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national
legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.
Under Article 2:
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other
measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of
war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked
as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a
justification of torture.
As a ratified convention, the CAT is a treaty which, through Article VI, Section 2 of the United
States Constitution (Supremacy clause), is “the Supreme Law of the Land” in domestic U.S. law.
Pursuant to the dictates of the CAT, Congress criminalized torture for actions outside the United
States. 11 The language of the Torture Statute tracks to a large degree the language of the Torture
10

11

Regina v. Bartle, 2 W.L.R. 827 (H.L.) (March 24, 1999).

18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A. §2340 provides in full:
As used in this chapter--

Convention and punishes conspiracy to commit torture as well as torture itself. While the U.S.
included various “understandings 12 along with its ratification of the Convention, international
law does not permit such “understandings” to undercut the force and language of the
Convention. 13 While the Torture Statute covers acts committed outside the United States (as
(1) "torture" means an act committed by a person acting under color of law specifically intended to inflict
severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions)
upon another person within his custody or physical control;
§2340A provides in full:
(a) Offense.--Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under
this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct
prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
(b) Jurisdiction.--There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if-(1) the alleged offender is a national of the United States; or
(2) the alleged offender is present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or
alleged offender.
(c) Conspiracy.--A person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the
same penalties (other than the penalty of death) as the penalties prescribed for the offense, the commission
of which was the object of the conspiracy.

12

“The United States understands that, in order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict
severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused
by or resulting from (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the
administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind altering substances or other
procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) the
threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the
administration or application of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the
senses or personality.” S. Exec. Rep. No. 101-30, at 36 (1990).
13

“Understandings” differ from “reservations.” An "understanding" cannot change an international legal obligation
under the Convention. Under international law, where there is conflict between international obligation and
domestic law, international law will govern. See P. Sands, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking
of Global Rules - From FDR’s Atlantic Charter to George W. Bush’s Illegal War, p. 213, Penguin Books (2006).
While Yoo in his Commentary in UC Berkeley Point of View dated January 5, 2005, claimed that the Senate in
ratification narrowed the definition of torture in the convention in these “understandings” and the criminal statutes,
this is not true. Section 2 of Article 1 of the CAT does not prohibit national legislation which would give wider
protection. It is clear that the Convention would not tolerate national legislation which would give less protection.
See Jordan J. Paust, Beyond the Law: The Bush Administration’s Unlawful Responses in the “War” on Terror 3334, 189-91 nn.59, 63.

opposed to the CAT, which is not site specific as to the place the torture occurs), the opinions
sought from Yoo and the others in 2002 address actions taken by U.S. officials outside the
United States, in the various “black sites” as well as bases in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. At
that time, the administration argued that Guantánamo was outside of the United States and
beyond the reach of any U.S. court. 14
III. THE UNITED STATES PROHIBITS TORTURE AND
OTHER CRUEL, INHUMAN, OR DEGRADING TREATMENT
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declared more than 25 years ago that the
prohibition against torture is universal, obligatory, specific, and definable. 15 Since then, every
U.S. circuit court has held that torture violates universal and well-established customary
international law, with the Eleventh Circuit finding that official torture is now prohibited by the
law of nations, including U.S. law. 16
Moreover, "understandings" that violate the object and purpose of a treaty are void, according to the Article
19(2) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The claim that treatment of prisoners that would amount to
torture under CAT does not constitute torture under the U.S. "understanding" violates the object and purpose of
CAT, which is to ensure that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment."
14

Actions taken by military personnel or any other person, who commit or have committed torture, would be
covered by the War Crimes Act,18 U.S.C. §2441 et seq. which states: “Whoever, whether inside or outside the
United States, commits a war crime, in any of the circumstances described in subsection (b), shall be fined under
this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to
the penalty of death. Subsection (b) provides that the circumstances are that “the person committing such war
crime or the victim of such war crime is a member of the Armed Forces of the United States or a national of the
United States.” In 18 U.S.C. §2441(b) “war crime” is defined as follows:
As used in this section the term ‘war crime’ means any conduct(1) defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed at Geneva 12 August 1949, or any
protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party;
(2) prohibited by Article 23, 25, 27, or 28 of the Annex to the Hague Convention IV, Respecting the Laws and
Customs of War on Land, signed 18 October 1907;
(3) which constitutes a violation of common Article 3 of the international conventions signed at Geneva, 12 August
1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party and which deals with noninternational armed conflict ....

15

16

Filartiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F. 2d 876 (2nd Cir. 1980).

Abebe-Jira v. Negewo, 72 F.3d 844, 847 (11th Cir. 1996). See also e.g. Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 F.3d 232, 243 (2d
Cir. 1995) (noting that torture is prohibited by "universally accepted norms of international law") (quoting

In 2004, Congress declared that "the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States and the
applicable guidance and regulations of the United States Government prohibit the torture or
cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of foreign prisoners held in custody of the United States"
here or abroad. Congress also affirmed the requirement that "no detainee shall be subject to
torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment that is prohibited by the
Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." Congress reiterated "the policy of the United
States to . . . investigate and prosecute, as appropriate, all alleged instances of unlawful treatment
of detainees in a manner consistent with the international obligations, laws, or policies of the
United States." 17
IV. BUSH'S ORDER AND THE TORTURE MEMOS
"A common plan to violate customary and treaty-based international law concerning the
treatment and interrogation of so-called terrorist and enemy combatant detainees and their
supporters captured during the U.S. war in Afghanistan emerged within the Bush administration
in 2002." 18
On February 7, 2002, President Bush announced that Geneva's Common Article 3 did not apply
to alleged Taliban and Al Qaeda members. Bush said, however, "As a matter of policy, the
United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent
appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of
Geneva." But the Torture Convention and jus cogens absolutely prohibit torture in all
circumstances.
Filartiga); Hilao v. Marcos: In re Estate of Ferdinand Marcos, Human Rights Litigation, 25 F.3d 1467, 1475 (9th
Cir. 1994) (declaring that torture is a specific, universal, and obligatory norm of international law); Siderman de
Blake v. Republic of Argentina, 965 F.2d 699, 717 (9th Cir. 1992) ("[I]t would be unthinkable to conclude other than
that acts of official torture violate customary international law. And while not all customary international law carries
with it the force of a jus cogens norm, the prohibition against official torture has attained that status."); Mehinovic v.
Vuckovic, 198 F. Supp. 2d 1322 (N.D. Ga. 2002) (holding that torture is a well-recognized violation of customary
international law and U.S. law), overruled on other grounds by Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc., 416
F.3d 1242 (11th Cir. 2005); Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front, 993 F. Supp. 3, 8 (D.D.C. 1998) (declaring that
international and U.S. law prohibit torture); Doe v. Unocal, 963 F. Supp. 880, 890 (C.D. Cal. 1997) (recognizing
that international and U.S. law prohibit torture); Xuncax v. Gramajo, 886 F. Supp. 162 (D. Mass.1995) (declaring
that torture is a well-recognized violation of customary international and U.S. law); Paul v. Avril, 901 F. Supp. 330
(S.D. Fla. 1994) (imposing civil liability for acts of torture).
17

Sense of Congress and Policy Concerning Persons Detained by the United States, Pub. L. No. 108-375, 118 Stat.
1811, § 1091 (a)(1)(6), (a)(8), (b)(2) (Oct. 28, 2004).

18

Paust, supra note 13, at 1.

In the summer of 2002, the Pentagon sought advice on whether the army was bound by the Field
Manual in interrogating prisoners at Guantánamo. An advisory memo written by Colonel Diane
Beaver, a U.S. Army lawyer, tried to find a way around the Field Manual constraints on
interrogation. 19 Before issuing her opinion, Colonel Beaver was visited by lawyers from
Washington D.C. including David Addington, Jim Haynes, and others who made it clear that
those at the top of the administration sought an outcome which would permit deviation from the
strictures of the field manual. 20
Her advisory opinion concluded that international obligations are irrelevant and that because the
detainees were not prisoners of war the Geneva Conventions did not apply. Before Colonel
Beaver issued her opinion, the Justice Department was providing advice on whether
interrogation techniques which were assumed to be legal under U.S. law could nonetheless
expose the U.S. to prosecution at the ICC 21 or violate the CAT. 22
There are many lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, the Justice Department and elsewhere
cognizant of the legal – indeed, constitutional – obligations the U.S. has under ratified treaties.
The administration, however, turned to political appointees, including then Deputy Assistant
Attorney General John Yoo and then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee for these opinions.

19

Colonel Beaver was relying on Bush’s executive order of February 7, 2002, which stated that the detainees at
Guantánamo were not prisoners of war and therefore allegedly not covered under the Geneva Conventions.

20

The importance of this meeting, which occurred in Guantanamo, is to contradict the administration’s original
story that requests for permission to use torture, euphemistically referred to as enhanced interrogation techniques,
came from the bottom up. The new book by Philippe Sands, entitled Torture Team, shows the decision to seek to
use these methods came from the very top and that significant pressure was placed on Beaver to write an opinion
that provided justification for what Addington and others wanted to do.
21

Although the United States has not ratified the Rome Statute, violations of the statute in countries which have
ratified it could subject persons within the territory to prosecution.
22

It is now known from the chronology provided by Philippe Sands in his recent Vanity Fair article entitled “Green
Light” that the lawyers for the president, vice president and secretary of defense, to wit: Addington, Haynes,
Gonzales, Yoo and Bybee, met in Guantánamo to discuss the use of various interrogation techniques which were
being proposed to be used on various detainees. It is also now known from recent news reports that there were
meetings at the White House in which the specific interrogation/torture techniques to be applied to various detainees
were discussed and approved.
ABC News reported last month that Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell,
George Tenet, and John Ashcroft met in the White House and micromanaged the torture of terrorism suspects by
approving specific torture techniques such as waterboarding. When asked, Bush admitted, "yes, I'm aware our
national security team met on this issue. And I approved."

On January 9, 2002, Yoo submitted a memorandum opinion titled “Application of Treaties and
Laws to al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” Co-authored with Special Counsel Robert J.
Delahunty, the memo purported to address “the effect of international treaties and federal laws
on the treatment of individuals detained by the U.S. Armed Forces during the conflict in
Afghanistan.”
This memo argued that the president was not bound by international laws in the war on terror. It
stated that “any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter,
the president or the U.S. Armed Forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al-Qaeda
and the Taliban.” The memo found it proper to deny the protections of international laws to
detainees and to exempt from liability those who denied such protections.
Yoo also authored a memorandum opinion dated August 1, 2002, titled “Standards of Conduct
for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. ss. 2340-2340A.” This opinion was addressed to Alberto
Gonzales from Jay Bybee, but was in fact drafted by Yoo.
In the August 1, 2002 memo, Yoo/Bybee changed the definition of torture contained in U.S. law
and the CAT, limiting it to those acts inflicting pain of equivalent in intensity to the pain
accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or
even death. This definition is much narrower than our laws provide in the CAT and the Torture
Statute.
Recently, a March 14, 2003 Yoo memorandum opinion has surfaced titled “Military
Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States.” This 81-page
memo again reiterates that the president is not bound by federal laws. “Such criminal statutes, if
they were misconstrued to apply to the interrogation of enemy combatants, would conflict with
the Constitution's grant of the Commander in Chief power solely to the president.” Yoo states
that the president is not bound by laws that prohibit torture, assault, maiming, stalking, and war
crimes. The opinion applies the restrictions imposed by treaties against torture to circumstances
leading to death.
The memo does not recognize the prohibition of torture as a jus cogens norm, but wrongly
declares that customary international law is not federal law and that the president is free to
override it at his discretion. Yet more than a century ago, in Paquete Habana, the Supreme Court
held that customary international law is part of the laws of the United States that must be
ascertained and applied by the judiciary. 23 In 1984, Justice O'Connor wrote that power

23

175 U.S. 677 (1900).

"delegated by Congress to the Executive Branch" and a relevant congressional-Executive
"arrangement" must not be "exercised in a manner inconsistent with . . . international law." 24
And finally, the memo suggests several defenses (military necessity and self defense) for those
brought up on criminal charges for violating laws during interrogations, notwithstanding the jus
cogens norm, the Geneva Conventions' clear command that military necessity does not justify
treatment Geneva prohibits, and CAT's absolute prohibition on torture.
V. THE AUGUST 2002 TORTURE MEMO IS WITHDRAWN
Many scholars have opined on the legal deficiencies of Yoo’s and others’ “torture memos.” 25
Referring to the discussion of jus cogens above, there is no legal basis for the claim that the
president is not bound by the law against torture. No one, not a lawyer or Congress, has the
authority to re-write the definition of torture contained in the CAT to allow for interrogation
techniques which clearly would amount to torture under the CAT’s definition. The “war on
terror” does not give the executive branch the ability to disregard the Geneva Conventions and
commit war crimes. 26
After the exposure of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and the existence of the August 1, 2002 memo
was revealed, the Department of Justice knew that the Yoo memos could not be legally
defended. The August 2002 memorandum opinion was withdrawn as of June 1, 2004. A new
opinion was written. This memo, authored by Daniel Levin, Acting Assistant Attorney General
Office of Legal Counsel, is dated December 30, 2004. It specifically rejects Yoo’s definition of
torture, stating: “Under the language adopted by Congress in sections 2340-2340A, to constitute
‘torture,’ the conduct in question must have been ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical
or mental pain or suffering.’" The memo separately considers the components of this key phrase:
(1) the meaning of "severe;" 27 (2) the meaning of "severe physical pain or suffering;" (3) the
meaning of "severe mental pain or suffering;" and (4) the meaning of "specifically intended."
24

TransWorldAirlines v. Franklin Mint Corp., 466 U.S. 243, 261 (1984)(O'Connor, J.). Every relevant federal case
has recognized that the President is bound by the laws of war. See, e.g., Paust, supra note 13, at 20-22, and cases
cited.
25

See e.g. Sands, Lawless World, supra, n. 13; M. Cohn, Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied
the Law, PoliPointPress (2007); Paust, supra note 13, at 9-11, 19-20, 29-30, 146, 148-49. In addition, both Steven
Gillers of NYU Law School and Scott Horton, adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School, have provided
various commentaries.
26

Indeed, the UN Convention on Suppression of Terrorist Bombings of 1997 treats “terrorists” as criminals, whose
punishments are subject to criminal law of the country at issue.

27

It cites cases where treatment was considered severe enough to qualify as torture: Hilao v. Estate of Marcos, 103
F.3d 789, 790-91, 795 (9th Cir. 1996); Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, 198 F. Supp. 2d 1322, 1332-40, 1345-46 (N.D. Ga.

With respect to “specific intent” to torture, the Levin memo does concur with LaFave,
Substantive Criminal Law, § 5.2(a), at 341 (footnote omitted) who states: “With crimes which
require that the defendant intentionally cause a specific result, what is meant by an "intention" to
cause that result? Although the theorists have not always been in agreement . . . , the traditional
view is that a person who acts . . . intends a result of his act . . . under two quite different
circumstances: (1) when he consciously desires that result, whatever the likelihood of that result
happening from his conduct; and (2) when he knows that that result is practically certain to
follow from his conduct, whatever his desire may be as to that result.
VI. HAMDAN V. RUMSFELD
On June 29, 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 28 that Guantánamo
detainees were entitled to the protections provided under Geneva’s Common Article 3. The
Court invoked the legal precedents that had been sidestepped by Yoo and others. Justice
Anthony Kennedy, joining the majority, pointedly observed that “violations of Common Article
3 are considered ‘war crimes.’”
Four months after Hamdan, President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act 29
which was passed to address the restrictions imposed on the administration by Hamdan, and also
attempted to create a new legal defense against lawsuits for misconduct arising from the
“detention and interrogation of aliens” between September 11, 2001 and December 30, 2005. 30

2002); Daliberti v. Republic of Iraq, 146 F. Supp. 2d 19, 22-23 (D.D.C. 2001); Cicippio v. Islamic Republic of Iran,
18 F. Supp. 2d 62, 64-66 (D.D.C. 1998).
28
29
30

548 U.S. 557,126 S. Ct. 2749 (2006).
Pub. L. No. 109-326, 120 Stat. 2600 (10/17/06)

While we would argue that attempts to immunize those complicit in torture from civil or criminal liability is not
permitted in the context of the violation of a jus cogens norm, the language in the Military Commissions Act
creating this legal defense is not a blanket grant of immunity, as pointed out by Houston Law Center Professor
Jordan Paust. §8(b) provides that: “[e]xcept as provided in paragraphs (2) and (3) of section 1005(e) of the Detainee
Treatment Act of 2005 (10 U.S.C. 801 note)” the reach of 42 U.S.C. § 2000dd-1 with respect to a defense in civil
actions and criminal prosecutions is revised where, under § 2000dd-1, the “officer, employee, member of the Armed
Forces, or other agent of the United States Government who is a United States person ... did not know that the
practices were unlawful and a person of ordinary sense and understanding would not know the practices were
unlawful.” It does not “provide immunity from prosecution for any criminal offense by the proper authorities.” The
“would not know” appears to be related to the international legal “should not have known” test, which rests on a
negligence standard. See, e.g., J. Paust, et al., International Criminal Law: Cases and Materials, 3rd Ed. at 51-78,
100-114, Carolina Academic Press (2007).

VII.

CAN ANY OF THOSE WHO WERE INVOLVED IN ANY WAY IN
DECIDING TO TORTURE AVOID PROSECUTION?

Professor Philippe Sands, an eminent international lawyer, in his book, Lawless World, stated:
“What do you do as an international lawyer when your client asks you to advise on the
international rules prohibiting torture? Do you start with the rules and ask how an international
court – or your allies – might address the issue and reach a balanced conclusion? Or do you
focus on the narrower issues of the relevance, applicability, and enforceability of the
international rules in the national context, and reach a conclusion that you know – if you ask
yourself the question – no international court would accept? Let me put it another way. Do you
advise, or do you provide legal cover?” 31
The National Lawyers Guild agrees with Sands’s conclusion that giving political cover makes a
lawyer complicit in the decision to torture. 32 It is the Guild's view that there can be no two
opinions on whether those who are involved in the decision to torture must be held accountable,
both under the War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute. 18 U.S.C. §2340A specifically applies to
those who conspire to commit torture. Yoo and other lawyers who were involved in providing
the opinions used to justify the use of torture are just as complicit as those who authorized and
carried out the torture itself and must be held equally accountable.
The Yoo/Bybee memos were either prospective, for the purpose of advising the executive of the
limits (or lack thereof) of its authority, or retrospective, for the purpose of addressing already
approved of actions. Although they purport to be the former, it now appears they were written
after the program of what the Bush administration euphemistically refers to as “enhanced
interrogation techniques” began. Regardless, there are only two conclusions one can draw from
the memos. The first is that their purpose was not to give the client (assuming for the sake of
argument that the Justice Department’s client is the president and not the people) a full
understanding of the legal issues, but to give legal cover to an already decided upon, potentially
criminal, policy. The second is that the drafters did their best to present all possible conclusions
and consequences, in which case the advice given fell so far below the requisite standard of care
as to constitute legal malpractice. No one, and certainly not the NLG, has accused Yoo of being
that incompetent.
Yoo, Bybee and others counseled that there were no laws which protected from torture the
detainees held at black sites, in prisons in Afghanistan or the Guantánamo concentration camp.
Furthermore, there can be no immunity, including Head of State immunity, for violation of a jus cogens norm.
There is no statute of limitations for a jus cogens crime and there is universal jurisdiction over those accused of
violating jus cogens norms.
31
32

Sands, supra, n. 13, p. 205.
Id., p. 208.

They defined torture as only those actions which caused sufficient pain as to cause organ failure
and/or death. These memos “green lighted” torture and many detainees were subjected to these
techniques including, it has been estimated, more than 100 who died at the hands of their captors.
They knew, or should have known, that a direct result of their counsel would be the use of
interrogation techniques against certain allegedly recalcitrant detainees which would amount to
torture. Or they knew it was already going on and they were doing their best to justify it.
Regardless, they are part of the conspiracy to commit torture. The "torture memos" written by
the DOJ lawyers, and "presidential and other authorizations, directives, and findings
substantially facilitated the effectuation of a common, unifying plan to use coercive interrogation
and that use of authorized coercive interrogation tactics were either known or substantially
foreseeable consequences." 33 John Yoo admitted that the coercive interrogation “policies were
part of a common, unifying approach to the war on terrorism.” 34
Some have criticized the National Lawyers Guild for targeting lawyers who were “merely
fulfilling their duty by giving advice.” It should be emphasized that the Guild is not only
targeting the lawyers. It has called for the impeachment of the president and vice president and
has continually called for prosecution of all those (not just the few lower-ranking enlisted people
who deserved punishment but who have been scapegoats for administration policy) responsible
for these crimes. However, the lawyers cannot be permitted to hide under the cover of fulfilling
their professional responsibilities.
Nor does the attorney-client privilege extend to keeping silent about planned criminal action.
Even conceding Yoo and his co-conspirators actually believed their position was correct, no
competent lawyer could have believed it unassailable. Giving real advice necessarily meant
advising of the risks as well as the arguments favoring torture. 35 And, it should be noted, their
incredibly narrow definition of torture completely ignored the prohibition against other cruel,
inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which would be obvious to anyone who chose to
read even the full name of the CAT. It is impossible to believe this was the result of
incompetence, leaving only the conclusion that they were willing participants in a conspiracy to
violate a jus cogens norm. Professor Yoo and Judge Bybee, as well as the other lawyers who
provided cover for illegal torture, are not protected by their right to free speech or academic
freedom. They were not expressing their unsupportable legal opinions in scholarly journals or in
classrooms. They were asked to justify what the administration wanted to do and they willingly
did it, knowing the inevitable results.

33
34
35

J. Paust, International Crimes Within the White House, 10 N.Y. City L. Rev. 339, 345 (2007).
Id. at 344.

The very phrase “arguments favoring torture” indicates how completely unjustifiable the Yoo/Bybee memos
were.

The prosecution of Josef Altstoetter and fifteen other lawyers who were tried in Germany before
a U.S. military tribunal – many of whom were convicted of committing international crimes
through the performance of their legal functions established the principle that lawyers and judges
in Nazi Germany bore a particular responsibility for the regime’s crimes. But it is not just that
case that should expose Yoo and his cohorts to liability for his advice. Their memos were not
written for the purpose of advocacy. If they were defending the president in an impeachment
case, or before the International Criminal Court, they would be free to argue, however vainly,
their novel positions. But they cannot divorce themselves from the consequences of their advice
and cannot be permitted immunity or impunity. The loss of their professional status would be a
small price to pay for the commission of war crimes.

 

 

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