‘Torture memos’ can’t be forgotten

Sacramento Bee

Nearly a year after the 9/11 attacks, a pair of government lawyers produced memos that gave cover to the Bush administration’s subsequent use of waterboarding and interrogation techniques widely considered to be forms of torture.

Those documents — and the damage they caused to America’s standing in the world — should never be forgotten. Sadly, there’s a real chance of such a memory lapse following a decision last week by the Obama administration.

Late Friday, the U.S. Justice Department closed its books on John Yoo and Jay Bybee, concluding that the two attorneys should not be held legally responsible for writing the “torture memos” in 2002 and 2003. The Justice report reversed the recommendation of its own ethics officials, who had slammed Yoo for purposely violating his duty to provide “objective and candid legal advice” and Bybee for acting in “reckless disregard” of his responsibilities.

Before the two slink off scot-free, the relevant disciplinary boards — in Pennsylvania in Yoo’s case, the District of Columbia in Bybee’s — should take a hard look at their transgressions and decide whether to revoke their law licenses.

That’s what the ethics officials recommended for these two lawyers. (Yoo since has returned as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Bybee was appointed by then-President George W. Bush to the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.)

With the Justice Department taking a pass, senior members of Congress should not let this go quietly. Some are not.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California occupies a particularly influential position. She sits on the Judiciary Committee and as chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee knows only too well that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques did the country more harm than good.

An opportunity comes Friday at a hearing called by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who argues that Bybee never would have been confirmed as a federal judge had senators known about his role in the torture memos. The senator says “the right thing to do” would be for Bybee to resign.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has nine California members, also plans a hearing, as yet unscheduled.

Rather than focusing on Yoo and Bybee, however, Congress can be most constructive in figuring out the right way to comprehensively show to the American people what went astray in the war on terror. Several civil liberties and human rights groups are calling for a special prosecutor or a nonpartisan commission, or both, to look into the use of torture.

To his credit, President Barack Obama spoke out forcefully against torture and ended its use almost immediately after taking office. But he is eroding that bold stand by not holding to account those who let it happen. Over and over, he has said he wants to look forward, not backward, including at Bush war-on- terror tactics such as domestic eavesdropping and the treatment of suspected terrorists.

Sometimes, however, you have to correct past wrongs before truly moving forward. The lawyer disciplinary boards can — and should — hold Yoo and Bybee accountable for some of the worst disgraces to occur in the aftermath of 9/11.

The above editorial was originally published Feb. 24 by the Sacramento Bee. Content was made available by MCTCampus.