WASHINGTON — Two of the Bush administration's most influential lawyers on Thursday downplayed their roles in crafting controversial legal policies in the war on terrorism, even as they rejected criticism that the president had overreached in asserting sweeping executive powers.
Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo said they'd sought after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to protect what they described as the president's inherent wartime powers and to offer interrogators clear guidance on what was permitted under vague U.S. and international laws.
Under intense questioning by members of a House Judiciary subcommittee, Addington and Yoo said that they'd played less dramatic roles in detainee interrogation policies than widely thought. But both men defended the administration's legal reasoning, including harsh interrogation techniques on detainees.
Democrats are demanding that the administration explain its reasoning as outlined in internal memos written after 9-11. Critics — including former administration insiders — have accused the Defense and Justice departments of condoning policies that encouraged abuse of detainees at prisons in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some critics, including most recently Retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, have said that officials committed war crimes.
As a result, the exchanges often bristled with hostility.
"Now, Mr. Yoo, if you're going to go around torturing people based on your memo, how do you know before you get information whether or not you're going to get good information from someone?" asked Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.
"Sir, I'm not going around torturing people, as you just said," Yoo replied. "And the memo does not authorize anyone to torture anybody. So, unfortunately, I don't agree with the premise of your question."
"Are you suggesting that the activities allowable under your memo do not constitute torture? Everybody's definition in the world except yours," Scott replied.
"Sir, I don't know what everybody else's definition in the world is," Yoo said.
In another exchange, Yoo acknowledged that some interrogation techniques may be seen as illegal in other countries.
"I think one of the problems is that the Convention Against Torture is interpreted different ways by different countries," he said.
Yoo declined to say whether the interrogation techniques would violate international laws if U.S. enemies used them on American soldiers.
"My view now is that it would depend on the circumstances," he said.
Yoo sidestepped most questions about waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates the sensation of drowning. CIA officials have acknowledged waterboarding three high-value terrorism detainees.
"I have to know exactly what you mean by waterboarding," he said. "When people say waterboarding, they're referring to lots of different things." He acknowledged that attempting to drown someone would be illegal.
Addington denied telling now-retired Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, who was then a judge advocate at Guantanamo, to do "whatever needed to be done" to detainees to obtain intelligence, as reported in a Vanity Fair article.
"Yes, I do deny it," Addington said. "Yes, that quote is wrong."
Asked what techniques he knew about, Addington declined to comment.
"I'm not in a position of talking about particular techniques," he said, adding, "al Qaida may watch these meetings."
Afterward, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the subcommittee chairman, said in an interview that Addington appeared "quite smug." He added that the two men's descriptions of several events appeared to contradict other witnesses. He acknowledged that the two lawyers had provided few answers to important questions about how the administration developed its stance on interrogation.
"It wasn't as useful as it would have been had Mr. Addington not sought to run out the clock on every question and to parse the words and not answer the questions, and Mr. Yoo not availed himself of rather questionable privileges a number of times," Nadler said. "But I think it was useful. I think it laid the groundwork for some future hearings."
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, accused administration critics of being naive and wanting to "make friends" and "cuddle up" with America's enemies.