Jay Bybee: The Man Behind Waterboarding

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Judge Jay Bybee

Jay Bybee has been called the "forgotten man" in the mounting furor over the CIA's harsh interrogation of imprisoned terror suspects — but he's quickly assuming a leading role. Though the mild-mannered lawyer has attracted little public attention, as a top Justice Department official he approved an array of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" against alleged al-Qaeda members that many observers call torture. They include forcing prisoners to stay awake for a week or more, waterboarding them and trapping them with an insect to exploit their fear of bugs.

Now a federal judge, Bybee, 55, led the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from November 2001 to March 2003 and signed off on a 2002 memo, recently released by the Obama Administration, authorizing the rough stuff in clinical detail. Along with his deputy John Yoo, Bybee infamously claimed that interrogation practices aren't legally torture unless they inflict pain resembling that of "serious physical injury" such as organ failure or death. While supporters say the policies helped keep the country safe in the wake of Sept. 11, critics say the memos are illegal and helped pave the way for the abuses seen at the Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. (See pictures of the aftershocks of Abu Ghraib.

Though Bybee wasn't the only person responsible for crafting the Bush administration's interrogation policy, unlike his erstwhile colleagues he continues to hold public office, sitting on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He now faces calls for impeachment from Sen. Patrick Leahy, former Obama aide John Podesta and the New York Times editorial board, among other corners. The Justice Department has distanced itself from much of Bybee's work and is reportedly preparing a scathing internal report that could call for him and others to be reprimanded or even disbarred.

Associates say Bybee was working under intense pressure and isn't proud of his controversial work. As a friend told the Washington Post, "I've heard him express regret that the memo was misused."

Fast Facts:

• Born in 1955 in Oakland. Met his wife, a high school teacher, at a screening of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" at the National Archives. They have four children.

• Served as a Mormon missionary in Chile from 1973-1975.

• Graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 1977, earning his law degree there three years later.

• Worked as an associate at the prestigious firm of Sidley & Austin in Washington before joining the Justice Department in 1984. Later served as Associate Counsel to President George H.W. Bush.

• Spent 10 years as a law professor at Louisiana State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he was named Professor of the Year in 2000.

• Returned to the Justice Department as Assistant Attorney General and head of the Office of Legal Counsel in 2001.

• Confirmed by the Senate to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2003 by a vote of 74-19. Some Democrats now say they would have blocked his confirmation if they had known about the interrogation memos.

• A former Eagle Scout.

• A kazoo enthusiast, he reportedly performed Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" with other kazoo players at Louisiana State University.

Quotes by Jay Bybee:

• "Talk is cheap. There's a difference between the theoretical discussion of the law and its practice. I take very seriously the fact that I have people's economic interests, liberty, and very lives in my hands."
—Reflecting on his appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Meridian magazine, a Mormon publication, in 2003)

• "I would like my headstone to read, 'He always tried to do the right thing.'"
—(Meridian magazine, 2003)

• "An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box."
—An August 1, 2002 Justice Department memo signed by Bybee concluding that suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who was believed to fear insects, could lawfully be confined with a caterpillar. The technique was not used.

Quotes about Jay Bybee:

• "Experts in the law of war say his memo is evidence suggesting he participated in a war crime. In light of these facts, why does Bybee remain on the federal bench?"
—Former Nixon counsel John Dean. (FindLaw.com, Jan. 14, 2005)

• "If the Bush administration and Mr. Bybee had told the truth, he never would have been confirmed."
—Senator Patrick J. Leahy. (Washington Post, April 25, 2009)

• "He is a pretty gentle soul. If you wanted to compare him to a personality, it would not be Donald Rumsfeld. He would be quieter, more reflective, quite temperate."
—Douglas Kmiec, former Office of Legal Counsel head. (New York Times, June 24, 2004)

• "Jay is universally respected for his intellect, honesty, and ability to articulate the issues, plus he is not a compromiser of principles."
—Nevada federal judge Lloyd D. George (Meridian magazine, 2003)

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