WASHINGTON -- As the spotlight grew more intense on federal Judge Jay Bybee, at least one senator stepped forward Tuesday to defend the Las Vegan and the opinion he signed that provided a legal green light for rough interrogations of terrorism suspects.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said calls for Bybee to be removed from his seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals were "outrageous."
"To call for him to be impeached when he was trying to give the proper legal advice is just ridiculous," Ensign said. "You impeach people for ethical violations, for criminal violations. It would be like impeaching a member of Congress because they voted the wrong way."
As a sitting federal judge, Bybee has become a lightning rod for critics of harsh interrogation methods that have been described as torture.
In an August 2002 legal memo made public Thursday, Bybee as a senior Justice Department attorney wrote that a series of tactics the CIA wished to use on a recalcitrant detainee did not rise to the legal definition of torture.
They included slams against a wall, face slaps, sleep deprivation, cramped confinement in boxes and waterboarding to simulate drowning. Believing that the detainee, Abu Zubaida, was afraid of stinging insects the CIA asked about placing an insect in his box.
Ensign said he agreed with Bybee's reasoning contained in the 18-page memo.
"This was not torture," Ensign said. "This is the thing we have to get away from, that this is somehow accepted that it was torture. The United States does not engage in torture. This was 'advanced interrogation techniques.'"
"If you catch Osama bin Laden, would you not want to use these techniques on him to maybe save American lives in the future?" Ensign said.
Democrats have led the way in calling for Bybee to resign or to be impeached and for formation of a "truth commission" that would investigate the activities of Bush administration officials.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday left open the door that some might be prosecuted.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was taking a wait-and-see approach, a spokesman said.
"Judge Bybee has a good professional reputation in Nevada," Reid spokesman Jon Summers said in an e-mail. "While the memos that have been released are disturbing to Sen. Reid, at this point in time, he doesn't think we should be making a rush to judgment.
"The Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility is reviewing this matter and he will wait to see what they have to say before making a decision," Summers said.
Reid and Ensign sponsored Bybee to become a federal judge.
The former law professor at the Boyd School of Law at UNLV was confirmed 74-19 in March 2003, two years before the initial disclosures tying him to "torture memos" produced by the Justice Department, where he was head of the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 until he became a judge.
Bybee "has been unfairly characterized by the media," Ensign said. "I think he wrote a good legal opinion. He did not authorize torture. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for him. I think he is a brilliant mind."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.