Lawyers who authorized torture ‘disgraced profession’: JFK counsel Sorensen

Lawyers who authorized torture ‘disgraced profession’: JFK counsel Sorensen

[JURIST] Ted Sorensen, former special counsel to US President John F. Kennedy, said in a commencement address [Lincoln Journal Star report] at the University of Nebraska College of Law [official website] Saturday that lawyers from the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] who authorized the use of enhanced interrogation techniques had "disgraced not only their country but their profession." Addressing law school graduates, Sorensen focused on the legal rationales put forward by Bush administration lawyers to justify the decisions of other officials, saying that "[i]n a country based on the rule of law, in which no man is above the law, whatever his rank or title, no man can undertake, authorize or immunize unlawful conduct." Sorensen argued that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques eroded the "moral high ground" of the US, weakened US standing with allies and promoted the recruitment efforts of terrorist organizations, thereby weakening national security:

Virtually every lawyer worth his diploma knows that the United States is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions on War Crimes and the 1984 Convention Against Torture; that waterboarding is torture and that torture is illegal, regardless of pieces of paper from Justice Department lawyers who disgraced not only their country but their profession, a fact of which their respective Bar Associations should take note. Those lawyers apparently thought in 2003-04 that their client was the President and later his Attorney General. Wrong. Their client was the American people who had a right to expect that their lawyers would know the law and uphold it, not attempt to redefine it or interpret it away…

A few years ago the American Bar Association established a Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession. I had the privilege to be named Honorary Co-Chairman. The Commission reminded all members of the Bar of their obligations to do justice, to obey the law, to defend the Constitution and to insist that our country observe international law in concert with other law-abiding. That’s what lawyers do.

That’s what many brave members of the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps did when they had the courage and integrity to stand up for the law and protest those fraudulent legal justifications for torture emanating from a Justice Department that they realized was spouting injustice.

Too many other American lawyers remained silent while our Constitution was being violated, while the rule of law was being flouted. Silent. But as Martin Luther King said: “There comes a time when silence means betrayal.” Those military lawyers deserve medals.

Sorensen reminded the graduates of the challenge faced in the darkest days of the Kennedy administration. Referring once again to the so-called 'torture memos", he noted that
One apologist for those mindless Justice Department opinions authorizing and justifying torture said by way of excuse: “Remember it was a time of high danger.”

High danger? Almost 47 years ago, the President of the United States learned that the Soviet Union had suddenly, secretly rushed nuclear intermediate-range missiles onto the island of Cuba, 90 miles from our shores, with the apparent intent of using them for either nuclear obliteration or nuclear blackmail; and we entered a period that historians have subsequently called the most dangerous 13 days in the history of mankind. President Kennedy did not seek or claim extraordinary emergency legal authority. He did not order the imprisonment, much less the torture, of all Communists or Cubans in our country, nor have their telephones tapped without a warrant. Mindful of international law, he took America’s case to the United Nations and the Organization of American States, and he redesigned a proposed blockade of Cuba into quarantine against offensive weapons, carefully balancing deterrence and defense with dialogue and diplomacy, thereby avoiding both nuclear war and a diminution of our security or our adherence to international law.

Sorensen, now 81, is the latest prominent public figure to denounce the involvement of US authorities in alleged torture of detainees held at US facilities, including Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base [JURIST news archives], after the April release of four CIA interrogation memos [JURIST report]. Last month, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) [official profile; JURIST news archive] , Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] renewed his call [JURIST report] for the formation of a non-partisan "truth commission" to investigate torture allegations, including those against Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) [official website] lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee [JURIST news archives]. Also last month, UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak [official profile, DOC] insisted that under international law the US must prosecute [JURIST report] DOJ lawyers who drafted the memos. President Barack Obama has said that he would not rule out the possibility of prosecuting [transcript; JURIST report] lawyers responsible for authoring the memos. Obama had previously said that he would not pursue prosecutions of CIA interrogators [statement], a pledge which drew sharp international criticism [JURIST report].