House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers on Monday rejected arguments that key current and former Bush administration officials cannot testify before Congress next week on U.S. interrogation practices and what constitutes torture, saying that he will consider using subpoenas to compel their testimony.
Conyers said he is prepared to subpoena former Attorney General John Ashcroft, along with David Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and John Yoo, a former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who wrote controversial legal opinions on interrogation procedures and torture.
Judiciary Democrats want the officials to testify at a hearing next Tuesday to examine the nature and scope of presidential power in a time of war and U.S. policies for interrogating detainees.
The hearing is being held, in part, in response to recent revelations of legal memos from the Justice Department from 2001-2003 on U.S. interrogation policy and military operations.
At least one memo written by Yoo remains classified, which reportedly stated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures did not apply to using the military inside the United States.
The memo has since been rescinded, but some critics think it was used by the administration to justify the so-called terrorist surveillance program in 2001, under which the National Security Agency conducted electronic surveillance on the communications of U.S. citizens inside the United States without warrants and in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The NSA program sparked widespread congressional outrage, and Congress remains in the throes of trying to come to a compromise on legislation to overhaul FISA.
CIA Director Michael Hayden also admitted earlier this year that three detainees in U.S. custody were subjected in late 2001 and 2002 to waterboarding, a technique in which interrogation suspects are choked with water.
Hayden said the practice has not been used since then, but Judiciary members are likely to question the legal basis for it at the hearing.
Conyers sent separate letters to Monday to lawyers for Ashcroft and Yoo and another directly to Addington. He told them they have until the end of the week to agree to voluntarily testify before the committee.
Conyers said he would be willing to arrange a date for testimony other than May 6.
House Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith slammed Democrats over threatening to use subpoenas, saying the committee has already held hearings on the issues.
“This hearing is just another example of the Democratic majority’s misuse of congressional resources as part of an unrelenting campaign to malign an outgoing administration,” Smith said in a statement. “The American people would be better served by a majority whose focus is on real issues facing our nation, rather than partisan politics and election year antics.”
All three officials told Conyers in separate letters through their lawyers last week that they would not testify at the upcoming hearing.
Monday’s letters are the latest volley between Conyers and these key figures. Conyers first asked Ashcroft on April 11 to appear before the committee.
“As my April 11 letter made clear, we are interested in hearing from Mr. Ashcroft about his personal knowledge of key historical facts, including memoranda that were issued by the Department of Justice under his command, and his participation in meetings at which those opinions appear to have been put to use,” Conyers wrote Monday to Ashcroft’s lawyer.
Conyers wrote Addington that the Cheney aide appeared to be involved in making key legal decisions concerning interrogations and detainee practices.
“Today we face a severe national challenge over changes related to the allegedly harsh treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, reportedly done with legal authorization of the Department of Justice and explicit approval from the highest officials in our government,” Conyers told Addington.
“Presumably, you believe that whatever actions you took were necessary and comported with the law; in such circumstances, I cannot image why you would decline to appear and set the record straight,” he added.
Yoo authored a recently released 81-page legal memo from March 2003 on the legal standards governing military interrogations of terrorism suspects.
The memo concludes, in part, that a U.S. interrogator could argue that he is justified in harming an enemy combatant during an interrogation to protect the nation from attack. The Justice Department rescinded the memo in December 2003.
“There is simply no justification for him to refuse to appear before the committee to testify on such subjects,” Conyers wrote to Yoo’s lawyer.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008, edition of NJ Daily.