2003 OLC Memo on Interrogation Declassified

A 2003 memo from the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel that appears to authorize abusive interrogation of suspected unlawful combatants outside the United States was declassified this week.

The memo (pdf) concludes that criminal statutes that would preclude torture and other forms of physical abuse “do not apply to properly-authorized interrogations of enemy combatants.” The memo, authored by John Yoo, was subsequently rescinded, amidst widespread criticism.

From a secrecy policy point of view, the document itself exemplifies the political abuse of classification authority. Though it was classified at the Secret level, nothing in the document could possibly pose a threat to national security, particularly since it is presented as an interpretation of law rather than an operational plan. Instead, it seems self-evident that the legal memorandum was classified not to protect national security but to evade unwanted public controversy.

What is arguably worse is that for years there was no oversight mechanism, in Congress or elsewhere, that was capable of identifying and correcting this abuse of secrecy authority. (Had the ACLU not challenged the withholding of the document in court, it would undoubtedly remain inaccessible.) Consequently, one must assume similar abuses of classification are prevalent.

The 81-page memorandum, dated March 14, 2003, is entitled “Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States.”

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