Commentary Magazine


Yoo and Bybee Cleared, Justice Department’s Shoddy Investigation Exposed

The Justice Department has finally closed a sorry chapter in its history — the attempt to criminalize the work of Department lawyers who rendered legal judgment on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in American history. The Office of Professional Responsibility, as the Washington Post report notes, had doggedly pursued John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who as Justice Department lawyers authored memos providing advice and direction on enhanced interrrogation methods including waterboarding. In a Friday information dump (which tells you it does not aid the cause of the administration and those seeking Yoo’s and Bybee’s punishment), we got a glimpse at two drafts of OPR’s report, its final report, and then the recommendation of David Margolis, a career lawyer and Associate Deputy Attorney General.

Margolis’s report is 69 pages long. Margolis essentially shreds the work of OPR, finding no basis for a referral of professional misconduct for either lawyer. It is noteworthy that all throughout, Margolis adopts many of the criticisms of OPR’s work that outgoing Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his deputy Mark Filip rendered before leaving office at the end of the Bush administration.

At times the work of OPR itself seems to have violated the professional standards it was charged with enforcing. Sloppiness abounds. Margolis finds, for example, that OPR applied the wrong legal standard, the “preponderance of evidence” rather than the more stringent clear and convincing evidence” standard that state bar proceedings would utilize. (p. 11) Margolis also concludes that OPR’s findings “do not identify violation of a specific bar rule.” ( p. 12) Margolis further notes that OPR’s analysis and legal standard shifted from draft to draft. (pp.13, 15-16)

Margolis explains that OPR was counseled to consider “the conduct of Yoo and Bybee in light of circumstances that then existed. Interestingly, Margolis reveals that OPR was told to consider that Yoo and Bybee rendered advice when “American lives were particularly at risk at the time.” (p. 16) OPR didn’t do so. Bybee’s successor assistant attorney Jack Goldsmith, who withdrew one of the memos at issue and was subsequently critical of Bush era interrogation polices, made an unsolicited submission urging that OPR should be “exercis[ing] great caution when assessing the professional responsibility of executive branch attorneys who act in time of national security crisis. Any standard that would have landed Robert Jackson [famed Nuremberg prosecutor and Supreme Court Justice] in trouble cannot be the right standard.” (pp. 19-20)

Margolis then goes methodically through the various legal work of Yoo and Bybee that OPR had found as the basis for professional misconduct. (pp. 21-64). At times Margolis found that OPR simply substituted its own judgment for that of Yoo and Bybee. (p.40) On other points Margolis found the analysis of Yoo and Bybee “debatable” (p. 64) and on some points he found the analysis flawed. But in no instance did he find they had violated their professional obligations. As to Bybee: “I conclude the preponderance of evidence does not support a finding that he knowlingly or recklessly provided incorrect advice or that he exercised bad faith.” (p. 64) OPR concluded that Yoo engaged in intentional misconduct. Again, Margolis concludes otherwise. (pp. 65-67). He notes that Yoo consulted in good faith with a criminal law expert in the Department, John Philbin. He criticizes what he calls Yoo’s “own extreme, albeit sincerely held, views of executive power,” but finds he did not “knowingly provide inaccurate legal advice to his client or that he acted with conscious indifference to the consequences of his action.” (p. 67)

The bottom line: Margolis finds the work of Yoo and Bybee “contained some significant flaws,” but that “the number and significance of them can now be debated.” (p. 68) What is clear is that there is no basis — and never was — for stripping these lawyers of their professional licenses, let alone criminally prosecuting them as many on the Left demanded. What is equally clear is that the work of OPR was shoddy, itself suspect, and ultimately rejected on many of the same grounds that Mukasey, Filip, Yoo, and Bybee raised — after years of inquiry and after certainly imposing much emotional and financial burden on Yoo and Bybee.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers is furious that Yoo and Bybee are not to be strung up. The real question, however, is why it took this long to clear the two lawyers and why OPR should have been permitted to flail around for years, putting at risk the professional reputations and savings of lawyers whose legal prowess fair exceeded theirs. It seems as though when counting up the “significant” flaws in legal work, OPR “wins” hands down.

UPDATE: Yoo’s attorney has released a statement. It concludes: “OPR’s work in this matter was shoddy and biased. The only thing that warrants an ethical investigation out of this entire sorry business is the number of malicious allegations against Professor Yoo and Judge Bybee that leaked out of the Department during the last year. It is high time for Attorney General Holder to show that these leaks were not authorized or encouraged — for base partisan purposes — at the highest levels of his department. Mr. Holder can do so by identifying the culprits and referring them for prosecution or bar discipline, as appropriate.”

UPDATE II: Bybee’s attorney has released a statement as well: “After an investigation spanning more than five years, the U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that Judge Jay S. Bybee acted in good faith and did not engage in ethical or professional misconduct during his service in the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.” The Department has also determined that the matter does not warrant further proceedings or referral to the District of Columbia Bar. Maureen E. Mahoney, Judge Bybee’s attorney, stated that “The Department correctly rejected all claims of ethical or professional misconduct by Judge Bybee. While this vindication was many years in the making, we are pleased that the matter has now been resolved in his favor. No public servant should have to endure the type of relentless, misinformed attacks that have been directed at Judge Bybee. We can only hope that the Department’s decision will establish once and for all that dedicated public officials may have honest disagreements on difficult matters of legal judgment without violating ethical standards.”

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.