United States v. Altstoetter: Lawyers As War Criminals
Concerned about the level of resistance faced by German troops in the occupied territories, Hitler instructed Field Marshall Keitel to issue a special decree authorizing extraordinary measures pursuant to which political suspects would simply "disappear" to special detention facilities and might face summary court proceedings. The death penalty appears as the punishment most frequently contemplated. The decree, issued on the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and as the German drive on Moscow stalled and the Soviet counteroffensive had begun, is known as the "Night and Fog Decree" (Nacht- und Nebelerlass), a reference to the covert action it authorized. Contemporaneous documents make clear that it was motivated by the high level of casualties German soldiers were sustaining behind the front in occupied territory. Pacification of this territory was given a high priority.
A team of Justice Department lawyers worked with Keitel and his team at the German General Staff (OKW) on the drafting of the decree and further steps for its implementation. This included a series of highly particularized rules setting out how such detainees were to be treated by police, justice officials and others. The rules specified how such individuals would be permitted to make wills, issue final letters of farewell, what would be done with children born to detainees and how their death could be recorded in the registry. Other lawyers prepared parallel orders creating special secret courts and detention facilities for those interned under the Nacht- und Nebelerlass. These courts were crafted under domestic German law and thus constituted a projection of German law into the occupied territories.
These arrangements flouted the protections of the Hague Convention, specifically the right of "family honor, lives of persons" and the right "to be judged under their own laws." To the extent applied against uniformed service personnel, they also violated the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War of 1929. However, the Justice Department lawyers advanced the view that the Hague and Geneva Conventions were inapplicable because their adversaries did not subscribe to these documents. This decree was applied brutally, and with particular force in France. A total of at least 7,000 persons were detained; a large number of them perished.
The Justice Department lawyers justified these acts as steps available to an occupying power in order to protect its troops against terrorist acts or insurgency. Further, the occupied territories could be divided, roughly, into three categories: (i) areas directly incorporated into the German State (for instance, Austria, Alsace-Lorraine, the Eupen-Malmédy region of Belgium, Danzig and portions of Poland); (ii) areas under German occupation and direct administration (such as Bohemia and Moravia); and (iii) areas under puppet régimes (such as Hungary and Slovakia). As for the first, they asserted the right to treat persons found within those territories under German law. As to the second, they claimed the right as occupier to promulgate new rules and orders, and to derive them from Germany. As to the third, they relied on the acquiescence of régimes like Vichy France and Hungary. Their positions on these points were at least colorable from a legal perspective.
The Justice Department lawyers were indicted and charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes arising out of the issuance and implementation of the Nacht- und Nebelerlass. The United States charged that as lawyers, "not farmers or factory workers," they must have recognized that their technical justifications for avoiding the application of the Hague and Geneva Conventions were unavailing, because these conventions were "recognized by all civilized nations, and were regarded as being declaratory of the laws and customs of war." That is to say, they were customary international law. Further, the United States charged, this decree "would probably cause the death of human beings," grounding a charge of homicidal intent.
After trial, the two principal Justice Department lawyers, one a deputy chief of the criminal division, were convicted and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment, less time served. This judgment clearly established the concept of liability of the authors of bureaucratic policies that breach basic rules of the Hague and Geneva Conventions for the consequences that predictably flow therefrom. Moreover, it establishes a particularly perilous standard of liability for government attorneys who adopt a dismissive attitude towards international humanitarian law.
The Present Crisis
Between the fall of 2001 and early 2004, US Government lawyers engaged many of the same issues and took decisions very close to those taken by von Ammann and his colleagues in the German Justice Department. In particular, the Nacht- und Nebelerlass has a close cousin in the United States extraordinary rendition project on a policy plain, though we should quickly note two essential distinctions: the total throughput in human terms has been dozens, not thousands of persons, and it has not involved death sentences, though not a few persons (to be exact: 98) have died in incarceration under circumstances suggesting that torture was involved, if they were not indeed tortured to death. These lawyers adopted a mantra, namely, to quote Alberto Gonzales, that the Geneva Conventions were "quaint" and "obsolete," and did not apply to a "new kind of warfare." In so doing, they thoughtlessly moved in the same paths traversed by lawyers in Berlin sixty years earlier. Indeed, at the General Staff trial, the world public learned for the first time of the valiant struggle of Moltke when one of his memoranda was put into evidence. It pleaded in forceful terms for respect of the Geneva Convention rights of enemy soldiers, civilians and irregular combatants on the East Front, mustering a series of arguments that bear remarkable similarity to a memorandum sent by Colin Powell to President Bush sixty years later. And in the margins, in the unmistakeable pencil scrawl of Field Marshall Keitel, were found the thoughts that these rules were "quaint" and "obsolete," they reflected the "outmoded notions of chivalric warfare." This was cited as an aggravating factor justifying a sentence of death against Keitel.
The Bush Administration apparently assumed that the court system would toe the political line they had drawn. It was clearly taken by surprise when the Supreme Court, in Hamdan, knocked the legal props out from under the Administration's detainee policy, validating the positions taken by the senior legal officers of the nation's uniformed military services and the State Department, which had opposed the Administration on this grounds. The Hamdan decision presents a straight-forward interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, finding that Common Article 3 was applicable to detainees in the War on Terror who did not qualify for prisoner of war protections. This position is also identical to the view embraced by the organized bar in the United States in 2003, in a series of reports that warned the Administration that its legal reasoning was both radical and isolated. But the most striking aspect of the Court's opinion was its forceful and repeated references to the War Crimes Act of 1996. There is little doubt that the Court was concerned that the Administration's policies were not just inconsistent with Geneva, but in fact potentially criminal under American law.
Scott Horton, Balkinization(Oct. 8, 2006) http://balkin.blogspot.com/2006/10/when-lawyers-are-war-criminals.html
Now, a little update, courtesy of Sen. Whitehouse and Emptywheel...
As soon as (or even before) Mukasey came in as AG, the OPR investigation into the legal opinions that justified the warrantless wiretapping was reopened. When it was reopened, Marty Lederman was skeptical that OPR would get very far:
According to a DOJ spokesperson, the OPR investigation will instead focus on two questions: whether DOJ attorneys "adher[ed] to their duty of candor to the court [presumably the FISA Court]"; and whether those attorneys "complied with their ethical obligations of providing competent legal advice to their client." (NOTE: "Officials said it was unlikely that either of the inquiries would address directly the question of the legality of the N.S.A. program itself : whether eavesdropping on American soil without court warrants violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.")
Thus, since John Yoo apparently was doing exactly what his client asked him to do, it is difficult for me to see how he could be said to have provided "incompetent" legal advice or to have breached a duty to a client who understood, and approved, exactly what the lawyers were doing.
But after an interesting discussion, he makes one caveat:
P.S. I should add that OPR might uncover information that demonstrates distinct ethical or other legal lapses -- such as a smoking gun showing that John Yoo and OLC did not really believe the advice they were giving; or evidence that OLC intentionally declined to seek the legal views of others within the Department because it knew that such views would undermine the office's desired conclusions; or evidence that DOJ and others provided fraudulent misrepresentations to telecoomunications providers in order to induce their cooperation; or, of course, evidence that DOJ lawyers dissembled to the FISA Court. It would be entirely appropriate for OPR to investigate, report and condemn such conduct. I just don't quite see the value in OPM evaluating the bona fides or "competence" of OLC's legal advice.
What if, I wonder, OLC had entirely rewritten the Constitution? What if it was more than just saying (as Marty describes), "that the President has an article II authority to disregard FISA" and instead saying, "the President has an article II authority to interpret article II authority as he sees fit"? Or, as Sheldon Whitehouse described it:
- "I don't have to follow my own rules, and I don't have to tell you when I'm breaking them."
- "I get to determine what my own powers are."
- "The Department of Justice doesn't tell me what the law is, I tell the Department of Justice what the law is."
Is that something that qualifies as a distinct legal lapse?
These legal opinions are--as we speak--under review. I have no clue if the sheer audacity of these opinions counts as something within OPR's mandate. But they may well rise to that level.