Sunday, January 31, 2010

Holder/DoJ Cover-up on Torture Memos Investigation: Who is David Margolis?

Adapted from an article previously published at The Seminal/FDL

Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman have scooped the press with a Newsweek article claiming to know the verdict of the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility report on the investigations into misconduct and unprofessional behavior by the Bush administration attorneys involved drafting the memos allowing the use of coercive interrogation techniques on prisoners. These techniques were largely derived from reverse-engineering torture inoculation procedures from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE programs.

According to Isikoff and Klaidman, the original verdict of the report was changed after the report was reviewed by the attorneys accused, and then reassessed by long-time DoJ honcho, David Margolis. The Newsweek article explains (emphasis added):

Previously, the report concluded that two key authors—Jay Bybee, now a federal appellate court judge, and John Yoo, now a law professor—violated their professional obligations as lawyers when they crafted a crucial 2002 memo approving the use of harsh tactics, say two Justice sources who asked for anonymity discussing an internal matter. But the reviewer, career veteran David Margolis, downgraded that assessment to say they showed “poor judgment,” say the sources….The shift is significant: the original finding would have triggered a referral to state bar associations for potential disciplinary action—which, in Bybee’s case, could have led to an impeachment inquiry.

In an initial assessment by bmaz at Emptywheel, for whom I owe the H/T for the Newsweek article:

Margolis is nearly 70 years old and has a long career at DOJ and is fairly well though of. Margolis was tasked by Jim Comey to shepherd Pat Fitzgerald’s Libby investigation. In short, the man has some bona fides....

Margolis is, however, also tied to the DOJ and its culture for over forty years, not to mention his service in upper management as Associate Attorney General during the Bush Administration when the overt acts of torture and justification by Margolis’ contemporaries and friends were committed. For one such filter to redraw the findings and conclusions of such a critical investigation in order to exculpate his colleagues is unimaginable.

But the involvement of Margolis in defanging the OPR report, and thereby assuring that governmental agencies or bar associations will not hold John Yoo, Jay Bybee and other Bush-era attorneys accountable for paving the way for legalistic torture, is perhaps not an incidental fact.

Dubious David

The role of Margolis, and the man himself, deserve a closer look. It does not take long to see that 40+ year DoJ veteran David Margolis has some skeletons in his closet, and that his track record is not unblemished.

In a July 2000 letter to the New York Review of Books by by E.L. Doctorow, Peter Matthiessen, William Styron, Rose Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, singled out Margolis as "point man" on a DoJ "vendetta" against Cointelpro victim Leonard Peltier.

Three months ago, in March, I had a phone call from a lawyer who has never been involved in the Peltier case but was aware of my longtime concern. A friend in the Justice Department had just mentioned to him that the FBI was intensifying its anti-Peltier vendetta within the department, with Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis as the point man.

More recently, a 2008 Los Angeles Times story indicated that Margolis had changed DoJ policy and decided to withhold summaries of OPR investigations. The article noted that " the resolution of most matters investigated by the OPR remains closely guarded, even in cases where courts have found evidence of serious prosecutorial misconduct."

The LA Times continued:

Publishing the summaries "reassures the public that [the Department of Justice] takes its self-regulatory responsibilities seriously and puts prosecutors on notice that they face public embarrassment if they are caught engaging in wrongdoing," said Bruce Green, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Fordham Law School in New York.

Associate Deputy Atty. Gen. David Margolis said it was his decision to excuse the OPR from preparing summaries of cases that might be released to the public. He said the decision reflected a lack of resources, as well as concern about balancing public interests with the privacy rights of individual attorneys facing accusations.

A 1999 story involves then Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder and Margolis acting together to spike a serious investigation into the 1993 Waco disaster, and in particular after it was discovered the FBI and DoJ had lied for years about using military incendiary devices at the Branch Davidian siege. Holder was overseeing an investigation led by Republican Senator John Danforth into the Waco Branch Davidian government siege. Bill Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno had taken the investigation out of the hands of U.S. Attorneys in Texas and given to GOP stalwart Danforth, who later exonerated the FBI of any wrongdoing, and recommended indictment of the only whistleblower in the case, U.S. Attorney William Johnston.

From a 9/15/99 Washington Post story:

The Justice Department has removed the entire U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas from further work related to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. The broad recusal is intended to avoid conflicts that could impede a fresh investigation being led by former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), a senior Justice Department official said yesterday.

Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg, whose office handled the criminal trial of the Branch Davidians in 1994, requested that his Western District office be recused from further work on Waco. Holder said that it is routine to approve recusal requests and that David Margolis, the senior department official who handled the details of the matter, told him he had never turned down a recusal request….

One of the attorneys in Blagg’s office who is being recused is Assistant U.S. Attorney William Johnston, who recently sent Attorney General Janet Reno a strongly worded letter warning that she had been misled by people within her department about the Waco siege. Holder said the broad recusal had nothing to do with Johnston’s letter.

Holder, who is second-in-command at the Justice Department, has been overseeing the Danforth probe since last week, when Reno recused herself from the matter because she too anticipates being a witness in the Danforth inquiry.

I’d say that Margolis’s “clean” reputation has been meticulously assembled, and I’m sorry if there are progressives who fell for it. Until I investigated further, I had no reason to question it myself. It goes to show that received wisdom if often not wisdom at all, and that we need to have a curious mind when it comes to acceptance of good intentions by this particular government (or maybe any government).

Margolis Covers-up Earlier Interrogation Scandal?

More speculatively, and intriguing, given the claims involved, is Margolis’s involvement in the investigation of a forgotten FBI sting operation against NASA contractors in the early 1990s. Operation Lightning Strike was, according to a Washington Post article at the time, a "20-month Justice Department sting operation focusing on NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston… [resulting] in criminal fraud and bribery charges against nine men and one contractor."

Later, in 1996, a defense committee was formed to support the "NASA-13". The committee, in a petitionto the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform and Oversight Committee claimed that the men caught up in the Operation Lightning Strike, some of whom were victims of "’frame-ups’ and torture, to obtain prosecutions." David Margolis was mentioned as admitting that an OPR investigation into the case was begun in 1994 to look into "investigative and prosecutive misconduct." However, no results from that report were ever made public. The involvement of Margolis in this case deserves further scrutiny, given it involved serious allegations about coercive interrogations and torture.

A defense committee press release was more specific about the abuses conducted by the FBI:

In a report submitted to Congress today, a team of defense attorneys representing the so-called "NASA-13," requested the US. House of Representatives Government Reform and Oversight Committee to hold hearings and appoint a Special Prosecutor, not affiliated with the U.S. government, to investigate the "NASA-13" cases in the light of scientific research competed by a team of NASA industry experts, defense attorneys and behavioral scientists. This report furnishes evidence that at least one of the NASA/IG Federal agents who conducted the NASA sting operation in Houston from 1991 to 1994 was in fact a highly qualified military intelligence interrogator, who with the FBI, employed a highly dangerous form of "psycho-technology" known in the behavioral science community as "Coercive Persuasion" or "CP", a form of mind control.

The phenomenon of "CP" was first observed in the post-traumatic reactions of Korean War military and civilian POWs. Many of these prisoners had confessed to non-existent crimes and cooperated with the enemy after having been subjected to what was then called "brainwashing."

Given that these claims are coming from a pre-9/11 era, they cannot be said to be derivative of recent news reports and scandals. I am not convinced about what actually went on in this case, but it is notable that the defense committee procured a letter from well-known psychologist, and former government Margaret Thaler Singer backing the claims of the defendants:

I have reviewed the Lightning Strike Victims Questionnaires and summary provided by the NASA-13 Defense Committee, and I concur with the committee’s assessment that there is substantial data in these highly consistent statements to confirm that a program of Coercive Influence was employed in the Interrogations of the Lightning Strike Suspects . The questionnaires uniformly reveal a systematic application of psychological techniques, in an organized programmatic way, within a constructed and managed environment, which was aimed at the participants sense of self and sense of reality, producing extreme anxiety and emotional distress….

Such programs can and regularly do produce psychiatric casualties. Practitioners of these programs attempt to hold the subject at the point of maximum stress, without inducing psychosis. My experience over the past four decades and in observing over 3,000 cases since participating in the evaluation of released Korean POW’s, unfortunately reveals that practitioners of these nefarious methods frequently exceed the limits with devastating results.

According to the defense committee, Department of Defense interrogators played key roles in the interrogations of the defendants, as aspect of the case that has also never been explained.

Now this may all be a lot of smoke, but when one adds in the latest role played by Mr. Margolis in spiking the initial results of misconduct on behalf of Yoo, Bybee, Addington, et al. (if we can believe the Newsweek leak), his appearance in this role does not seem so remarkable. Margolis appears to have a long history of involvement in government frame-up and/or obfuscation of internal misconduct by the FBI or Justice Department prosecutors.

Will we see the intrepid U.S. press look more deeply into this? One could wish this were true. Every once in a while the mainstream press shows what it’s capable of, as with the exposure of torture at Bagram under Obama’s administration, or with Scott Horton’s Harper’s revelations on the 2003 killings of three Guantanamo prisoners, covered-up as supposed "suicides".

But the OPR report is shaping up to be one gigantic cover-up, assuming we ever get to see much of it, after the government censors get done with it.

The country is thick with torture and crime, and unable to free itself from thralldom to its governmental enablers. Let’s see how easily Holder, Obama, and Margolis get away with their cover-up of Yoo, Bybee, Gonzales, and Addington’s lies and alibis. Meanwhile, torture continues as official policy of the Obama administration in the guise of an appendix to the Army Field Manual. But outside of Emptywheel, some former interrogators, and a few others, no one seems to care.

And so it goes.

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