Office of Legal Counsel to Defend Torture Memos and Warrantless Wiretapping of Americans

February 14, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU Urges House Judiciary Subcommittee to Seek Legal Opinions and Answers

Washington, DC – Today’s oversight hearing of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties is expected to examine the issues of torture and waterboarding, as well as the warrantless wiretapping being conducted by the U.S. government. The acting head of the OLC, Steven Bradbury, will testify before the subcommittee. Mr. Bradbury is thought to be the author of controversial legal opinions from the OLC that have approved the use of harsh interrogation methods and spying on Americans through warrantless wiretaps.

The OLC also issued an opinion blessing the politicization of the United States Commission on Civil Rights that gave a huge advantage to President Bush’s conservative nominees. By maneuvering to allow Republicans to rename themselves Independents, the Bush administration circumvented the rules on political balance and successfully stacked the Civil Rights Commission with conservatives. Civil rights and civil liberties groups have urged the Justice Department to rescind that decision.

“The Office of Legal Counsel does not write the law, and legal opinions that reverse years of American law, jurisprudence and treaties cannot be kept secret from Congress and the American people,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Waterboarding does not suddenly become lawful because Mr. Bradbury claims so in secret. The Bush administration has attempted to hide behind a veil of evasiveness that needs to be lifted so the American people can see what rogue, and possibly illegal, behavior has been done in our name.”

President Bush nominated Mr. Bradbury to formally head the OLC, but his nomination has been blocked in the Senate due to the Justice Department’s refusal to turn over Mr. Bradbury’s legal opinions. The OLC’s opinions on wiretapping serve to support the president’s domestic spying program and have been a major sticking point in the congressional debate over changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The documents were under subpoena from both chambers of Congress last year and, to this day, only a select few members of Congress have received access to the opinions.

“It seems that some in the OLC believe, like the administration, that they are above the law they interpret,” said Fredrickson. “Congress has now been asked twice since last summer to extend the scope of the president’s warrantless wiretapping program, but the vast majority of members are barred from seeing the legal blueprints on which it was based. Too many administration officials have been vague, and at times downright uncooperative, in the face of legitimate congressional requests. It’s time to cut through the stonewalling and get real answers.”

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