Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

The Legacy of the “Torture Memos”

Sponsored by London Book Fair

The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) was established by an act of Congress in 1933 to draft legal opinions for the attorney general and give legal advice and guidance to the various departments and agencies of the executive branch. Since then it has tended to keep its many memos and legal opinions secret, releasing them only under external pressure. “This is a shame,” writes Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, in the Review’s April 20 issue. “Recent history makes all too clear how profound the costs to our society can be when the OLC subordinates constitutional principle to political expedience.”

Jaffer is referring to the “sophistic, myopic, and rigged” memos prepared in the summer of 2002 by John Yoo and Jay Bybee that authorized the Bush administration to torture “unlawful combatants” as part of the war on terror. Yoo and Bybee’s opinion was leaked to the press two years later, by which time the US Army and the CIA had killed dozens and brutalized thousands of people at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and unnamed “black sites” around the world.

Below, alongside Jaffer’s essay, we have collected a selection from our archives about the OLC’s notorious legal opinions and the long trail of violence they enabled.

Jameel Jaffer
Judging in Secret

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel was once known as the “constitutional conscience” of the executive branch, but in recent years it has been known principally for green-lighting torture, mass surveillance, and extrajudicial killings

Mansoor Adafyi, Moazzam Begg, and five other former detainees at Guantánamo Bay
An Open Letter to President Biden About Guantánamo

“President Bush opened it. President Obama promised to close it, but failed to do so. President Trump promised to keep it open. It is now your turn to shape your legacy with regards to Guantánamo.”

Janet Hamlin
Sketches from Guantánamo

A selection of drawings and commentary from the artist who has documented the Guantánamo Bay hearings since 2006. Since cameras and recording equipment were forbidden in the trials, her drawings form the primary visual record of the events that have taken place there.

David Cole
The Torture Memos: The Case Against the Lawyers

“True accountability cannot stop at the CIA interrogators, but must extend up the chain of authority, to the lawyers and Cabinet officers who approved the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in the first place.”

Mark Danner
US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites

“A naked man chained in a small, very cold, very white room is for several days strapped to a bed, then for several weeks shackled to a chair, bathed unceasingly in white light, bombarded constantly with loud sound, deprived of food; and whenever, despite cold, light, noise, hunger, the hours and days force his eyelids down, cold water is sprayed in his face to force them up.”

Raymond Bonner
Forever Guantánamo

“Civil liberties have not been a big issue in the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns, and are not likely to be; there are probably few votes in standing up for the rights of suspected Muslim terrorists.”

Mark Danner
Abu Ghraib: The Hidden Story

“Abu Ghraib [is] a peculiarly contemporary kind of scandal, with most of its plotlines exposed to view—but with few willing to follow them and fewer still to do much about them. As with other controversies over the Iraq war, the revelations have been made, the behavior exposed, but the moral will to act, or even to debate what action might be warranted, seems mostly lacking.”


Leave a Reply