Nuremberg Revisited: Obama Administration Files To Dismiss Case Against John Yoo

John Yoo is being defended in court this month by the Administration. Not the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration. As with the lawsuits over electronic surveillance and torture, the Obama administration wants the lawsuit against Yoo dismissed and is defending the right of Justice Department officials to help establish a torture program — an established war crime. I will be discussing the issue on this segment of MSNBC Countdown.

The Obama Administration has filed a brief that brushes over the war crimes aspects of Yoo’s work at the Justice Department. Instead, it insists that attorneys must be free to give advice — even if it is to establish a torture program.

In its filing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Justice Department insists that there is “the risk of deterring full and frank advice regarding the military’s detention and treatment of those determined to be enemies during an armed conflict.” Instead it argues that the Justice Department has other means to punish lawyers like the Office of Professional Responsibility. Of course, the Bush Administration effectively blocked such investigations and Yoo is no longer with the Justice Department. The OPR has been dismissed as ineffectual, including in an ABA Journal, as the Justice Department’s “roach motel”—“the cases go in, but nothing ever comes out.”

The Justice Department first defended Yoo as counsel and then paid for private counsel to represent him (here). His public-funded private counsel is Miguel Estrada, who was forced to withdraw his nomination by George Bush for the Court of Appeals after strong opposition from the Democrats.

Yoo is being sued by Jose Padilla, who was effectively blocked in contesting his abusive confinement and mistreatment as part of this criminal case and in a habeas action. The Bush Administration brought new charges to moot a case before the Supreme Court could rule. The Court previously sent his case back on a technicality.

It is important to note that the Administration did not have to file this brief since it had withdrawn as counsel and paid for Yoo’s private counsel. It has decided that it wants to establish the law claimed by the Bush Administration protecting Justice officials who support alleged war crimes. They are effectively doubling down by withdrawing as counsel and then reappearing as a non-party amicus.

The Obama Administration has gutted the hard-fought victories in Nuremberg where lawyers and judges were often guilty of war crimes in their legal advice and opinions. The third of the twelve trials for war crimes involved 16 German jurists and lawyers. Nine had been officials of the Reich Ministry of Justice, the others were prosecutors and judges of the Special Courts and People’s Courts of Nazi Germany. It would have been a larger group but two lawyers committed suicide before trial: Adolf Georg Thierack, former minister of justice, and Carl Westphal, a ministerial counsellor.

They included Herbert Klemm, who was sentenced to life imprisonment and served as minister of justice, director of the Ministry’s Legal Education and Training Division, and deputy director of the National Socialist Lawyer’s League.

Oswald Rothaug received life imprisonment for his role as a prosecutor and later a judge.

Wilhelm von Ammon received ten years for his work as a justice official in occupied areas.

Guenther Joel received ten years for being an adviser (like Yoo) to the Ministry of Justice and later a judge.

Curt Rothenberger was also a legal adviser and was given seven years for his writings at the Ministry of Justice and as the deputy president of the Academy of German Law

Wolfgang Mettgenberg received ten years as representative of the Criminal Legislation Administration Division of the Ministry of Justice,

Ernst Lautz (10 years) had been chief public prosecutor of the People’s Court.

Franz Schlegelberger, a former Ministry of Justice official, was convicted and sentenced to life for conspiracy and other war crimes. The court found:

‘…that Schlegelberger supported the pretension of Hitler in his assumption of power to deal with life and death in disregard of even the pretense of judicial process. By his exhortations and directives, Schlegelberger contributed to the destruction of judicial independence. It was his signature on the decree of 7 February 1942 which imposed upon the Ministry of Justice and the courts the burden of the prosecution, trial, and disposal of the victims of Hitler’s Night and Fog. For this he must be charged with primary responsibility.

‘He was guilty of instituting and supporting procedures for the wholesale persecution of Jews and Poles. Concerning Jews, his ideas were less brutal than those of his associates, but they can scarcely be called humane. When the “final solution of the Jewish question” was under discussion, the question arose as to the disposition of half-Jews. The deportation of full Jews to the East was then in full swing throughout Germany. Schlegelberger was unwilling to extend the system to half-Jews.’

It was the “ideas” that these lawyers advanced that made the war crimes possible. Other officials were tried but acquitted. All of these officials used arguments similar to those in the Obama Administration’s brief of why lawyers are not responsible for war crimes that they defend and justify. Bush selected people like Yoo to justify the war crime of torture. If they had written against it, the Administration might have abandoned the effort. The CIA director and others were already concerned about the prospect of prosecution. The Obama Administration’s brief revisits Nuremberg and sweeps away such quaint notions. Indeed, the brief for Yoo could have been used directly to support legal advisers Wolfgang Mettgenberg, Guenther Joel, and Wilhelm von Ammon.

If successful in this case, the Obama Administration will succeed in returning the world to the rules leading to the war crimes at Nuremberg. Quite a legacy for the world’s newest Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Defenders of the Administration insist that the brief does not expressly gut Nuremberg or reference war crimes. Of course, that is the point. The brief does not make any exception for liability for legal advice when it is part of a torture program or war crime. When combined with the Administration’s refusal to appoint a special prosecutor for the torture program (and the President’s promise that no CIA employees would be prosecuted), the brief closes the circle: there will be no criminal or civil liability for the war crimes committed by the Bush Administration.

The only reference to substantive criminal prosecution is in the following abstract statement:

That is not to say that the actions of a Department of Justice attorney providing advice should go unchecked. Department of Justice attorneys, if they abuse their authority, are subject to possible state and federal bar sanctions, see 28 U.S.C. § 530B, investigation by both the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Office of the Inspector General, as well as criminal investigation and prosecution, where appropriate. If Congress believes that additional avenues of recourse are necessary in cases where Department of Justice attorneys provide legal advice regarding matters relating to war powers and national security, it could enact appropriate legislation. Given the sensitivities of such claims, and the risk of deterring full and frank advice regarding matters of national security, however, this is a clear case where “special factors” strongly counsel against the recognition of a Bivens action.

“[W]here appropriate” are the key words. The Administration has already blocked criminal prosecution for torture. More importantly, this case is about Yoo’s involvement in creating that program. However, even in assisting in the establishment of a torture program, the Administration insists that there can not be civil liability (let alone criminal liability). If the Administration wanted to maintain the rule created at Nuremberg, it would have stated clearly that no privilege or law protects a lawyer who is assisting in the establishment of a war crime or torture program. Of course, the Administration has already said the opposite. Obama and Holder have stated that “just following orders” is a complete defense for CIA employees (here).

The effort to ignore the clear position of this Administration shows the dangers of a cult of personality. Just as conservatives ignored Bush’s violation of core conservative values on the budget and big government, some liberals are ignoring Obama’s violation of core liberal values on civil liberties and privacy.

For the DOJ brief, click here.

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