WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Bush administration lawyers who authorized harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects used poor judgment but will not face punishment, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released on Friday.
The department's Office of Professional Responsibility had originally found that the high-ranking lawyers, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, had engaged in professional misconduct and also urged that criminal prosecution be considered for interrogators who relied on their advice, according to the report.
The harsh techniques Yoo and Bybee authorized included waterboarding of terrorism suspects as the Bush administration tried to elicit intelligence after the September 11, 2001, attacks for capturing or killing anti-American al Qaeda militants.
However, Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis reviewed the ethics report as well as responses by Yoo and Bybee and decided not to adopt its findings and instead decided that they gave flawed legal advice.
The two lawyers "exercised poor judgment by overstating the certainty of their conclusions and underexposing countervailing arguments," Margolis said.
While he declined to refer concerns about the conduct by Yoo and Bybee to the state bar associations for possible disciplinary action, Margolis said they "can choose to take up the matter."
Separately, a federal prosecutor is examining whether interrogators who relied on their advice should face criminal charges.
During the Bush administration, Yoo and Bybee were high-ranking officials in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Yoo is now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and Bybee is a federal appeals court judge.
The outcome angered human rights groups who have pushed the Obama administration to pursue criminal charges, arguing that the harsh interrogations, which included a technique known as waterboarding, were forms of torture.
President Barack Obama has said he preferred to look forward beyond the Bush administration but that has been complicated by the ethics report and a decision by his attorney general, Eric Holder, who asked a prosecutor to look into allegations of abuse on prisoners by CIA interrogators.
"The report underscores the need for a more thorough investigation that has more scope and powers to follow the evidence," said the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group that has represented some former prisoners.
Democrats who control the Judiciary Committees in the House of Representatives and Senate plan to hold hearings as early as next week.
Margolis did offer some criticism for Yoo noting that his judgment was "clouded" in providing advice to the administration about what was permitted under the law which "led him to author opinions that reflected his extreme, albeit sincerely held, views of executive power."
Yoo's lawyer, Miguel Estrada, said in a statement that Margolis' report exonerated his client and that the ethics review he rejected "was shoddy and biased."
The rejected ethics report had found that Yoo committed "intentional professional misconduct when he violated his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective and candid legal advice."
Waterboarding, which induces the sensation of drowning, was used on three terrorism suspects including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has said he was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks and al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah.
Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and James Vicini; Editing by Bill Trott