The Salt Pit and the Bybee Memos

The AP has a long article out providing details behind the Salt Pit death of a detainee named Gul Rahman–a former militant associated with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who was captured on October 29, 2002 at the home of Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, Dr. Ghairat Baheer, along with the Baheer and three others. A week later, Rahman was separated from the others. He was subjected to stress positions and water dousing and–on November 20–left in 36 degree cold, only to die a few hours later.

Aside from finally providing details on a story that has long been known, the story is interesting for the way it shows the how the CIA’s torture system fit with DOJ’s approvals in the Bybee Memos. The Rahman death shows that CIA’s managers (probably in the Counterterrorism Center) were involved in direct guidance on a technique that got someone killed. That technique was specifically not approved in the Bybee Two memo. But when CTC worked to exonerate the guy in the field–the manager of the Salt Pit–they pointed to the intent language of the Bybee One memo, and claimed that anything short of intending severe pain could not qualify as torture. Ultimately, CIA’s managers used the Get Out of Jail Free Card that John Yoo had written them to prevent accountability for themselves when they gave approval for a technique that got someone killed.

Gul Rahman died from water dousing

The AP describes how, in response to Rahman’s resistance to US guards (he threw a latrine bucket), he was subjected to stress positions and dousing.

At one point, the detainee threw a latrine bucket at his guards. He also threatened to kill them. His stubborn responses provoked harsher treatment. His hands were shackled over his head, he was roughed up and doused with water, according to several former CIA officials.

The exact circumstances of Rahman’s death are not clear, but the Afghan was left in the cold cell on the morning of Nov. 20, when the temperature dipped just below 36 degrees. He was naked from the waist down, said two former U.S. officials familiar with the case. Within hours, he was dead.

Though the AP doesn’t say it, the language used here makes it clear CIA thought of this as water dousing–a technique that would not be approved by DOJ for use until August 26, 2004. After Rahman died, the CIA tried to invent the Legal Principles document as a way to authorize murder and other crimes, but Jack Goldsmith would go on to not only refuse to consider that document OLC authorization, but to refuse to approve water dousing specifically in March 2004.

In other words, three years and our third review of this case later, and DOJ still hasn’t decided whether wetting someone down in close to freezing temperatures is a crime, even though this was a torture technique that DOJ had not approved at the time.

The Salt Pit manager relied on the advice of his superiors

Now, the guy who wet down Rahman apparently wasn’t working off a list of approved techniques. Rather, he was asking for guidance from his superiors.

The [Inspector General’s] report found that the Salt Pit officer displayed poor judgment in leaving the detainee in the cold. But it also indicated the officer made repeated requests to superiors for guidance that were largely ignored, according to two former U.S. intelligence officials.

That raised concerns about both the responsibility of the station chief and the CIA’s management in Langley. Similar concerns about CIA management were later aired in the inspector general’s review of the CIA’s secret interrogation program.

In fact, John Yoo, appears to blame the people interpreting the Bybee Memos for any untoward results from torture. For example, he refers to a written document (probably cables to the field) that appear to be derivative of the Bybee Memo, suggesting those didn’t properly account for pain that might amount to death.

The Memo says that the pain must rise to the level that “would ordinarily be associated with a sufficiently serious physical condition or injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions.” Bybee Memo at 6. There is no way to interpret this sentence other than that if the pain is equivalent to the pain that accompanies those conditions, the infliction qualifies as torture, whether or not it actually does result in those conditions. It certainly would not be so misinterpreted by the sophisticated legal audience at which the Bybee Memo was directed–especially given the analysis in the Classified Bybee Memo, which carefully examined the level of physical pain caused by the individual interrogation techniques even though none of those techniques cause death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions. See Classified Bybee Memo at 9-10 (“With respect to physical pain, we previously concluded that ’severe pain’ within the meaning of Section 2340 is pain that is difficult for the individual to endure and is of an intensity akin to the pain accompanying serious physical injury.”)40

40 [long redaction] But, of course neither Professor Yoo nor Judge Bybee have anything to do with writing or reviewing [redacted] and they could reasonably assume their own work product would be read in good faith and consistently with its terms by a sophisticated audience even if a particular reader did not read it carefully or willfully disregarded its terms. [emphasis original]

That is, Yoo seems to blame whoever both read the Bybee Memo and–having interpreted the memo in a “sophisticated” manner–passed on authorization for techniques that did result into death.

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It’s Not Yoo, It’s the History

If you had to guess the first several words that Miguel Estrada would use to argue that John Yoo should not be held accountable for his bad lawyering, what would those words be? (Answer below the fold.)

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Will Miguel Estrada Represent John Yoo Before Sonia Sotomayor at SCOTUS?

I had a bit of a contest on Monday to guess which lawyer was representing John Yoo as Jose Padilla’s suit against him goes forward.

The winner of that poll is the anonymous reader who noted that Miguel Estrada represented Yoo when Yoo testified before Congress last year. You can let me know by email which deserving charity you’d like me to mail your utterly worthless hubcap to…

The Recorder has more details about the tough work Estrada has ahead of him. (h/t WSJ Law Blog)

John Yoo, author of some of the Bush administration’s war-on-terror memos, has hired Washington, D.C., lawyer Miguel Estrada to appeal a ruling that allowed an allegedly mistreated detainee’s suit against Yoo.


Estrada has already been representing Yoo in an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility into the legal work behind the memos. That investigation is ongoing, though the results could be released at any time, and a draft finding reportedly would have referred Bybee and Yoo to State Bar authorities for possible discipline.

As a reminder, this means that Estrada will represent Yoo as he attempts to convince the 9th Circuit to reverse the District Court’s ruling that Padilla’s suit against Yoo can move forward.  And–it is not unreasonable to imagine–regardless of what the 9th Circuit decides, the Latino the Republicans wished had been the first on SCOTUS (Estrada) might soon face the Latina Republicans will grudgingly see confirmed as Justice in the next few weeks for a big showdown over the rule of law. Any bets on whether Estrada makes more money trying to save Yoo from any consequences for his actions (yes, taxpayers will be footing Estrada’s bill) than Sotyomayor will make in her first year on SCOTUS?

In addition to reporting that Estrada will represent Yoo, the Recorder has some interesting speculation from some law professors who have been following the case on why Yoo needs his own lawyer.

New York University School of Law professor Stephen Gillers, who has written about the investigation into the memos, said that the Justice Department should not have been Yoo’s sole representation in the first place, because conflicts of interest between Yoo and his former employer were too likely to occur.

Yoo may have wanted to make arguments that the Justice Department couldn’t pursue, such as implicating other DOJ officials, Gillers said. Read more