Judge Bybee's impeachment sought over torture memos

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, today called for the impeachment of Las Vegas federal judge Jay Bybee, one of the authors of “torture memos” written by senior Justice Department lawyers during the Bush administration.

  View legal memo

Nadler, D-N.Y., previously had called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate officials tied to the authorization and use of extreme interrogation methods.

Today, he became the first member of Congress to go a step further when he said Bybee “ought to be impeached.”

An 18-page interrogation memo Bybee signed in August 2002 that gave the Central Intelligence Agency legal go-ahead to use harsh interrogation on a “high value” detainee “was not an honest legal memo. It was an instruction manual on how to break the law,” Nadler said.

It was among four legal memos on the interrogation program released by the Obama administration Thursday.

The others were written in 2005 by Steven G. Bradbury, a Bybee successor as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Bybee previously has been associated with another August 2002 legal memo on interrogations, that one addressed to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It opined that the president as commander in chief has broad authority to approve harsh interrogations and that tactics short of “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” might be defended as acceptable.

Human rights advocates and other Bush critics have charged that legal opinions written by the Office of Legal Counsel, a little known but influential band of lawyers within the Justice Department, provided the legal underpinning for waterboarding and other severe methods of interrogation.

Bybee was a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Justice Department in 2001. He was confirmed to a lifetime seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003, before any of the controversial documents came to light.

“Any special prosecutor on torture would have to look at the authors of those torture memos,” Nadler said. “And certainly you have real grounds to impeach him once the special prosecutor took a good look at that. I think there ought to be an impeachment inquiry looked at in any event. Which should happen first, I’m not sure.”

Nadler was quoted in an interview with the online Huffington Post. Nadler was not available for comment today but his spokesman Ilan Kayasky confirmed the accuracy of the comments.

Kayasky said Nadler, who is chairman of the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee, was not prepared to introduce articles of impeachment against Bybee. The House member is scheduled to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss his call for a special prosecutor.

It was not clear how far impeachment calls would carry. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on Sunday that President Barack Obama will not pursue prosecution of Bush officials who devised torture policies.

Today, Obama visited CIA headquarters where he told employees not to be “discouraged that we have to acknowledge personally we’ve made some mistakes.” Obama banned harsh interrogation techniques as one of his first moves after taking office.

Obama has indicated he wanted to move forward rather than prolong the rancor caused by the interrogations. “This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” he said in a statement Thursday.

The New York Times on Sunday also called for Bybee’s impeachment in an editorial, increasing pressure on the Las Vegas-based judge.

“These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution,” the newspaper opined. “Congress should impeach him. And if the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable.”

Bybee had no comment, according to a court spokesman.

The legal memo made public last week was signed by Bybee and directed to John Rizzo, the CIA’s acting general counsel.

The CIA was seeking input to increase pressure on detainee Abu Zubaida, who was believed to be a high ranking al-Qaida figure with knowledge of terrorist cells in the United States and plans for impending attacks on the U.S. or its interests overseas.

The Justice Department already had conveyed an oral OK, with the Bybee memo memorializing that advice.

The memo goes into detail on 10 methods the CIA wished to use on Zubaida, including slamming him against a wall, slapping his face, confining him in a small space, depriving him of sleep, and subjecting him to waterboarding meant to simulate the sensation of drowning.

Believing that Zubaida had a fear of insects, the CIA proposed to tell the detainee it was putting a stinging bug into his confined space, although in reality it would be a caterpillar or another harmless insect.

Bybee in the memo told Rizzo that the Justice Department concluded the interrogation procedures would not constitute illegal torture under U.S. law.

“We wish to emphasize that this is our best reading of the law; however, you should be aware that there are no cases construing this statute, just as there have been no prosecutions brought under it.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.