The NY Times reports on newly leaked emails from within the Department of Justice.

Discussed further by Glenn Greenwald.

These leaks further support and strengthen various arguments already made by those calling for accountability, including ourselves — and of course, the arguments made against other Bush administration officials as well.

In various discussions on Rice’s culpability, we have dealt with the possibility that, on trial for war crimes, Rice would point to the “torture memos” for exoneration, as supposedly independent legal advice. In response, we (and the prosecution) would argue that that is not a proper characterization of the facts. We have argued, based on previous revelations, that the memos were written as “get out of jail free” cards. According to reports of National Security Council Principals Committee meetings in 2002, chaired by Rice, the memos were regarded as a “Golden Shield” for officials who feared prosecution. One can even make the case that the relevant lawyers and officials at the Department of Justice were complicit, in a conspiracy to torture.

So, in court, there would be a question to establish which narrative is accurate:

(1) Rice and others request disinterested legal advice; legal advice allows waterboarding etc. In this case, Rice and others might have a viable defence. After all, they are not lawyers, and deference ought to be accorded to the opinions of qualified lawyers within the government.

(2) Rice and others want to perform, have performed, waterboarding etc but need their “golden shield” of legal advice. They want, perhaps expect, administration lawyers in the department of justice to provide all necessary justifications. They request “get out of jail free” cards, crucially involving waterboarding. Despite the clear legal precedents that waterboarding is torture etc, obedient, perhaps complicit, lawyers provide justification. Where the justification is insufficient or not forthcoming, pressure is applied until the requisite degree of legal backing is given. In this case, the defence is not viable. The legal opinions are not in good faith, or created under pressure/duress, or dishonestly, or in complicity to torture. Rice and others (maybe including lawyers) go to jail.

How could a judge or jury choose between these narratives? There are crucial matters of fact that could help distinguish them.

Plainly, words like “golden shield” in Principals Committee meetings support narrative #2. The fact that waterboarding had happened prior to the memos, also. But clearly, much turns upon the communications between lawyers and the principals like Rice. In this regard, these emails are crucial new pieces of evidence. In particular:

A. Chronology and retrospectivity.

If interrogations happen before the legal justifications, that suggests they were written as retrospective justification. In general, lawyers (and the law) abhor retrospectivity. Lawyers do not like to write retrospective justifications, and if they do, they prefer to write them in general terms. Importantly, these emails reveal that the memos, although written in general terms, were effectively retrospective, and were regarded that way.

B. Evidence of pressure/reluctance.

The details of communications between the principals like Rice, and the lawyers, are crucial. The more reluctant lawyers are to provide these justifications, or disagree with them, the more narrative #1 sounds preposterous. As far as the individual lawyers are concerned, the reluctant ones are less likely to be found complicit, although perhaps the more likely their seniors are. These emails are the incarnation of one lawyer’s reluctance and reveal extraordinary pressure from the White House, and policy-makers in general.

I should add that Comey’s reluctance appears to be on extremely narrow and legally indefensible grounds; he also seems to neglect the mountain of precedent that waterboarding is torture and so on; he seems to be somewhere between gross dereliction of professional duty and complicity in torture. But the point remains.

These are not petty matters. They are crucial findings of fact which would probably be the central issue in a war crimes prosecution. And I think we have crucial evidence here which demolishes any remaining possibility of viability for the “get out of jail free card” defence for Rice and others.

The end of the Golden Shield
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