WASHINGTON - Two of the Bush administration's most influential lawyers played down yesterday their roles in crafting controversial legal policies in the war on terrorism, even as they rejected criticism that the president had overreached in asserting sweeping executive powers.
Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, David Addington, and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo said they had sought after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to protect what they described as the president's inherent wartime powers and to offer interrogators clear guidance on what was permitted under what they described as vague U.S. and international laws.
Under questioning by members of a House Judiciary subcommittee, Addington and Yoo acknowledged that they had advised President Bush and Cheney on key questions about the president's wartime powers, but said that they had played less-central roles in detainee interrogation policies than widely thought.
Both men defended the administration's legal reasoning, including harsh interrogation of detainees overseas, as outlined in now widely repudiated secret memos.
The exchanges often bristled with hostility.
"Now, Mr. Yoo, if you're going to go around torturing people based on your memo, how do you know before you get information whether or not you're going to get good information from someone?" asked Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat.
"Sir, I'm not going around torturing people," Yoo replied. "And the memo does not authorize anyone to torture anybody. So, unfortunately, I don't agree with the premise of your question."
"Are you suggesting that the activities allowable under your memo do not constitute torture? Everybody's definition in the world except yours," Scott said.
"Sir, I don't know what everybody else's definition in the world is," Yoo replied.
Afterward, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said that the two men's descriptions of several events appeared to contradict those of other witnesses. He acknowledged that the two lawyers had provided few answers to important questions about how the Bush administration developed its stance on interrogation.
"It wasn't as useful as it would have been had Mr. Addington not sought to run out the clock on every question and to parse the words and not answer the questions, and Mr. Yoo not availed himself of rather questionable privileges a number of times," Nadler said.
Addington's testimony marked the first time that he has answered questions before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee about interrogation policies. He is one of the Bush administration's more influential lawyers and a chief architect of many anti-terrorism policies. He initially resisted calls from Congress to testify, agreeing only after the House of Representatives subpoenaed him.
Similarly, Yoo declined several times to answer questions, invoking executive privilege and the Justice Department's need to protect national security secrets.
Democrats are demanding that the administration explain its reasoning as outlined in internal memos written after Sept. 11. Administration critics - including former insiders - have accused the Defense and Justice departments of condoning policies that encouraged the abuse of detainees at U.S. prisons in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have asserted that administration officials committed war crimes.