That advice "was designed to achieve an end," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at a hearing where lawmakers for the first time received detailed testimony from a Justice official about a department inquiry that found the lawyers showed bad judgment but committed no misconduct.
Defending the investigation, acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler told the committee, "Although some may disagree with our conclusions, we are confident that the department followed an appropriate process." The No. 2 Justice official was the lone witness.
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The probe of former department lawyers Jay Bybee and John Yoo found that their legal advice in response to a CIA proposal contained significant flaws, but did not warrant their referral to state bar associations for possible discipline.
Bybee is now a federal appeals court judge and Yoo is a law professor.
The department's investigation has drawn fire from both liberals, who wanted harsher action, and conservatives, who were upset there was any criticism of the pair at all.
The report released last week by the Office of Professional Responsibility found that Bybee and Yoo had committed professional misconduct, a conclusion that could have cost them their law licenses. But top career lawyer David Margolis at the department overruled the office.
"Mr. Margolis decided this matter without interference from the attorney general, the deputy attorney general or any other department official, and his decision represents the department's final action," Grindler told the committee. "No attorney general or deputy attorney general has ever overturned the conclusion of the career official in such circumstances."