An internal watchdog office at the Justice Department is investigating whether Bush administration lawyers violated professional standards by issuing legal opinions that authorized the CIA to use waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, officials confirmed Friday.
H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel for the Office of Professional Responsibility, wrote in a letter to Democratic lawmakers that his office is investigating the "circumstances surrounding" Justice Department opinions that established a legal basis for the CIA's interrogation program, including a now-infamous memo from August 2002 that narrowly defined torture and was later rescinded by the department.
"Among other issues, we are examining whether the legal advice contained in those memoranda was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys," Jarrett wrote.
This is the second publicly disclosed Justice Department investigation related to the CIA's use of waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning that is considered torture by most human rights groups and legal scholars. Jarrett's inquiry began in 2004 but was not confirmed publicly until now, officials said.
In January, Attorney General Michael Mukasey assigned a special U.S. attorney to investigate whether CIA officials committed crimes by destroying interrogation videotapes of two high-level al-Qaida detainees, including one who was waterboarded. But Mukasey has rebuffed demands from Congress to investigate the interrogations themselves, saying officials were acting under legal advice from the Justice Department.
Justice spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement that the Office of Professional Responsibility investigation "in no way suggests that those who rely on the Department's advice should be subjected to a criminal investigation."
The office is also investigating whether Justice Department lawyers followed professional standards in helping to authorize a warrantless surveillance program by the National Security Agency. And the office is part of a inquiry of the scandals surrounding the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, which led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last fall.
The results of Office of Professional Responsibility investigations are usually kept confidential because they focus on allegations of professional misconduct or other personnel issues. But in his letter Monday to Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Jarrett wrote that investigators will consider releasing a "nonclassified summary" at the conclusion of the investigation "because of the significant public interest in this matter."
Durbin said in a statement: "A hard look at DOJ officials who approved waterboarding as a lawful interrogation technique is long overdue." He added that officials involved "must be held accountable for their actions."