[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Wednesday granted qualified immunity [opinion, PDF] to former Bush administration official John Yoo [academic profile; JURIST news archive] over allegations of wrongdoing in relation to controversial memos asserting the legality of enhanced interrogation techniques [JURIST news archive]. The lawsuit, brought by convicted terrorist Jose Padilla [JURIST news archive], claimed Yoo’s legal opinions endorsing enhanced interrogation techniques led to Padilla being tortured. Padilla, a US citizen currently serving a 17-year sentence [JURIST report] on terrorism-related charges, said that he was tortured while held as an enemy combatant [JURIST news archive] in military custody in a Navy military brig in Charleston, South Carolina. In granting qualified immunity, the panel wrote:
We agree with the plaintiffs that the unconstitutionality of torturing a United States citizen was “beyond debate” by 2001. Yoo is entitled to qualified immunity, however, because it was not clearly established in 2001-03 that the treatment to which Padilla says he was subjected amounted to torture. … In 2001-03, there was general agreement that torture meant the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental. The meaning of “severe pain or suffering” however, was less clear in 2001-03.
The panel went on to note a number of influential opinions at the time that had declined to define which severe interrogation methods qualified as torture. The panel refused to decide if Padilla’s treatment amounted to torture, but, if it had, they held that the definition of torture was not “beyond debate” in 2001-03.
Yoo was a lawyer with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) [official website] and is now a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law [official website]. He could have faced disbarment. In Feburary 2010 the DOJ issued a ruling [JURIST report] saying that Yoo was only guilty of “poor judgment” in writing the interrogation technique memos. In July 2009 Yoo appealed a district court ruling [JURIST reports] that permitted a lawsuit alleging his complicity in torture to proceed. The Spanish justice system continues to seek information in response to a lawsuit [JURIST reports] alleging a legal cover up, by US officials including Yoo, of torture methods.