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Bush Administration Torture memo now online
by Walker working groups, Analysis by Michael (mparent7777 [at]
Wednesday Jun 9th, 2004 8:11 AM
If anyone in the higher levels of government acted in reliance on this advice, those persons should be impeached. If they authorized torture, it may be that they have committed, and should be tried for, war crimes. And, as we learned at Nuremberg, “I was just following orders” is NOT (and should not be) a defense.

Walker Working Group Report (aka the Torture Memo)

Apologia Pro Tormento: Analyzing the First 56 Pages of the Walker Working Group Report (aka the Torture Memo)
I have read a redacted copy of the first 56 pages of the Torture Memo (alternate source). The memo — or at least the approximately half of it we have — sets out a view as to how to make legal justifications for the torture of detainees unilaterally labeled by the government as “unlawful combatants”, including (but not limited to?) al Qaida and Taliban detainees in Guantanamo.

Here are my initial comments on some of the main points, especially those regarding Presidential powers and international law. I’ve concentrated on those parts because those are the relevant issues I think I know the most about; in contrast, I say little here about the direct criminal law issues. I wrote this in a hurry, so please treat these as tentative remarks. I look forward to discussion with other readers, and will post amendments and corrections when they are brought to my attention.

1. The memo begins by noting, accurately, that our international obligations include a commitment to refrain from actions that would be ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the Constitution. This acknowledgment does not, however, infuse much of what follows.

2. The memo notes that Justice Department opined in a separate memo dated January 22, 2002, Re: Application of Treaties and Laws to al-Queda and Taliban Detainees, that customary international law “cannot bind the Executive Branch under the Constitution because it is not federal law” and in particular clear executive decisions would be “controlling” law that would trump customary international law. [Note: The Jan. 22 memo cited here seems related to the Gonzales memo of Jan 25, but to be a separate document — is a copy available anywhere?]

In my opinion, the first part of this statement about customary international law is directly contrary to the Restatement (3rd) of Foreign Relations Law of the United States § 111(1) — although I suppose a reasonable person might conceivably disagree. The second part is simply weasel wording: Compliance with customary law is an international obligation of the US, but not always a domestic obligation. It’s agreed that Congress can constitutionally legislate in a way that would violate our international obligations, although as a matter of construction courts presume it has not done so unless the Congressional intent to violate international law is explicit. It’s not generally agreed the President can do this unilaterally, especially since the Supreme Court declared that “international law is part of our law” in The Paquete Habana (1900).

3. As previously noted by the WSJ, the memo argues (accurately, in my opinion) that the Torture statute, 18 USC § 2340, applies only to conduct outside the US, then it argues (plausibly) that Guantanamo is inside the US for jurisdictional purposes, hence not within the zone covered by § 2340. As I noted previously, this analysis conflicts with the position the US government took regarding Guantanamo before the Supreme Court. (But I actually think the memo has it right, and the US litigation posture wrong.) The memo argues that the two positions can be reconciled, which again is technically correct—they can be read that way—but I think it would be wrong to read them that way, and it’s certainly not compelled.

4. Then there’s a long discussion of what is or isn’t torture, with much fine parsing of the torturer’s intentions, all of which seems designed to bend over backwards to suggest that hurting people a whole lot to the point of damage is fine if you do it with the right spirit. I cannot bear to summarize all this; it is too painful. I have never seen a better demonstration of the first part of the saying that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” an ironic property given the identity of the lead author.

5. The discussion of Presidential powers begins (page 20) with the observation that in the exercise of the commander-in-chief function, and in particular in the conduct of operations against hostile forces, the President enjoys “complete discretion”. That the President’s powers are at their greatest in these circumstances cannot be disputed. But while the discretion is indeed very great, I do not see how it could possibly be read to include the authority to commit war crimes, even pre-Nuremburg. And today it clearly cannot include that authority, at least without explicit Congressional authorization. Thus, the entire discussion of Presidential power is based on a premise so false that any student who has taken introductory International Law should be able to recognize its error. And as any logician will tell you, when you begin with an erroneous premise, you are in trouble.

6. A similar error infuses the paper’s discussion of the application of the Torture statute, 18 USC § 2340, to actions on the field of battle or activities ancillary to battle. On p. 21 the paper states that the President’s military authority to run a campaign means that the Torture statute “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority” (i.e. all military interrogations in wartime) because — I am not making this up, they are — “Congress lacks the authority to under Article I to set the terms and conditions under which the President may exercise his authority as Commander-in-Chief to control the conduct of operations during a war.” In short, according to this memo, on the field of battle the President’s authority is absolute (recall that the English commander-in-chief was an official who reported to George III). “Congress may no more regulate the President’s authority … to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.”

This is clearly wrong on the Constitutional level, and quite probably a bad analogy. It is clearly wrong to suggest that Congress exceeds its authority when it implements an international treaty obligation against torture, even if this has the result of reducing otherwise extant Presidential power. This is because under Article VI of the Constitution, international treaties “shall be the supreme Law of the Land”. We’ve known that this means what it says since at least Missouri v. Holland, if not long long before.

It is generally agreed — and I certainly believe — that Congress has no role in dictating battlefield troop movements, or the choice of field commanders (as opposed to its constitutional role in approving promotions). Conversely, under the Constitution, if not always in real life, Congress does get to choose who we attack. And Congress does have a say in the methods by which we wage war, both via the spending power and via its constitutionally prescribed role in setting the rules of military justice. If Congress passes a law that says it’s a criminal act for a soldier to thumb his nose at a prisoner, or carry a type of weapon, that’s a valid law, and the Commander in Chief authority cannot trump it. To argue otherwise is to say that were Congress to decide that we should not make a neutron bomb, as it did, the President could nonetheless decide to make one, and use it on the battlefield. Similarly, were Congress to pass a law that said nuclear weapons could only be used if certain conditions had been met, under the Constitution the President would not have the authority to ignore that limitation.

But that’s all beside the point. Even if we were to accept that the President has unlimited authority over the battlefield, it in no way follows that this authority extends to Guantanamo, which is far removed from it. The memo treats this as given. It is anything but given.

Page 23 really goes off the rails, making an argument popular with the Federalist Society, but not taken seriously by mainstream academics, for unlimited, uncontainable, Presidential power. The so-called “unitary executive” argument is set out most clearly in a Harvard Law Review article, Steven G. Calabresi & Kevin H. Rhodes, The Structural Constitution: Unitary Executive, Plural Judiciary, 105 Harv. L. Rev. 1155 (1992). My explanation as to why this article is profoundly wrong and dangerous can be found at A. Michael Froomkin, The Imperial Presidency’s New Vestments, 88 Nw. L. Rev. 1346 (1994), which in turn sparked separate and not entirely consistent answers from each of the two authors of the Structural Constitution article. My rebuttal article Still Naked After All These Words, 88 Nw. L. Rev. 1420 (1994) is also online.

On pages 22-23 the Walker Working Group Report sets out a view of an unlimited Presidential power to do anything he wants with “enemy combatants”. The bill of rights is nowhere mentioned. There is no principle suggested which limits this purported authority to non-citizens, or to the battlefield. Under this reasoning, it would be perfectly proper to grab any one of us and torture us if the President determined that the war effort required it. I cannot exaggerate how pernicious this argument is, and how incompatible it is with a free society. The Constitution does not make the President a King. This memo does.

7. The draft returns to the theme of cruel and unusual punishment around page 35, grudgingly noting that although Gitmo detainees have no constitutional rights since they are foreigners, the US nonetheless can’t subject to them to acts that would be ‘cruel and unusual’ due to our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. Having said that, the memo notes that what is cruel and unusual is not a hard and fast rule (I’d add “in all cases”, since I think some things are per se cruel and unusual), and what is forbidden may depend on the circumstances. Having constructed this loophole — which to the extent it exists is not designed to allow coercive questioning — the memo then tries to squeeze through it, noting in its Eight Amendment analysis that the “government interest here is of the highest magnitude” (p. 38) and hence things that might be excessive force in other circumstances might not be here. But it doesn’t come to any specific conclusions about what’s in and what’s out.

8. There’s an extensive discussion of various criminal and civil statutes that might land a torturer in hot water, but I’m going to skip over those. Similarly, I’m not going to discuss the UCMJ provisions cited on pages 47-51, except to note that the UCMJ is a congressional enactment, pursuant to its constitutional powers. Indeed, as the memo notes, “even in war limits to the use of force exist” and these are enforced by the military justice system.

The memo is ambiguous as to whether it argues that the UCMJ is an infringement of the President’s supposed plenary power of the military. Failing to make this argument would expose the flaws in its own reasoning that the President is subject to no legal constraint in his prosecution of a war and in any ancillary activities relating to it. On the other hand, arguing the UCMJ is invalid is obviously nuts. Here’s what the memo says on the subject of the President unilaterally overruling the UCMJ (p. 53):

“Legal doctrines could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal not unlawful.

See discussion of Commander-in-Chief Authority, supra.

Oddly, there’s no mention of the Constitutionally proper means by which a President could in fact overrule the UCMJ — by exercising the Pardon power. (Perhaps it’s not so odd — unitary executive partisans don’t want to admit that the Pardon power is how the President balances Congress’s lawmaking power; they’d rather have the President in effect legislate.)

9. The final section of the 56 pages in the version posted online (there’s obviously lots of the memo left to be found), discusses the very reasonable rules in fact used heretofore by the US armed forces. Unlike the authors of this memo, the folks on the sharp end eschew physical torture, preferring interrogation techniques that sound a lot like what the cops do down at the station.

10. This memo is labeled “draft”. Even so, if the second half is like the first, then everyone who wrote or signed it strikes me as morally unfit to serve the United States.

If anyone in the higher levels of government acted in reliance on this advice, those persons should be impeached. If they authorized torture, it may be that they have committed, and should be tried for, war crimes. And, as we learned at Nuremberg, “I was just following orders” is NOT (and should not be) a defense.

[Note: I have corrected the paragraph numbering and a number of typos. 6/9/04 10am]

by Michael : June 9, 2004 12:00 AM

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