I first read the emails and then the New York Times article and wondered if the New York Times had analyzed the same memos that I had read. From the NYT piece:
When Justice Department lawyers engaged in a sharp internal debate in 2005 over brutal interrogation techniques, even some who believed that using tough tactics was a serious mistake agreed on a basic point: the methods themselves were legal.
Previously undisclosed Justice Department e-mail messages, interviews and newly declassified documents show that some of the lawyers, including James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general who argued repeatedly that the United States would regret using harsh methods, went along with a 2005 legal opinion asserting that the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency were lawful.
There is nothing in the emails that indicate Comey had agreed that the interrogations techniques outlined in the DOJ "torture memos", were legal. To the contrary, he raised fierce objections to the program and warned that the opinions would come back to haunt the administration. emptywheel has more analysis of the problems with the New York Times article here.
So, what do these newly leaked emails tell us? Glenn Greenwald has a great post that breaks down the emails:
The DOJ torture-authorizing memos are perfectly analogous to the CIA's pre-war intelligence reports about Iraq's WMDs. Bush officials justify their pre-war statements about WMDs by pointing to the CIA's reports -- as though those reports just magically appeared on their desks from the CIA -- when, as is well documented, Dick Cheney and friends were continuously pressuring and cajoling the CIA to give them those threat reports in order to supply bureaucratic justification for the attack on Iraq. That is exactly how the DOJ torture-authorizing memos came to be: Dick Cheney, David Addington and George Bush himself continuously exerted extreme pressure on DOJ lawyers to produce memos authorizing them to do what they wanted to do -- not because they were interested in knowing in good faith what the law did and did not allow, but because they wanted DOJ memos as cover -- legal immunity -- for the torture they had already ordered and were continuing to order. Though one won't find this in the NYT article, that is, far and away, the most important revelation from the Comey emails.
But the real story here is obvious -- these DOJ memos authorizing torture were anything but the by-product of independent, good faith legal analysis. Instead, those memos -- just like the pre-war CIA reports about The Threat of Saddam -- were coerced by White House officials eager for bureaucratic cover for what they had already ordered. This was done precisely so that once this all became public, they could point to those memos and have the political and media establishment excuse what they did ("Oh, they only did what they DOJ told them was legal"'/"Oh, they were only reacting to CIA warnings about Saddam's weapons"). These DOJ memos, like the CIA reports, were all engineered by the White House to give cover to what they wanted to do; they were not the precipitating events that led to and justified those decisions. That is the critical point proven by the Comey emails, and it is completely obscured by the NYT article, which instead trumpets the opposite point ("Unanimity at DOJ that these tactics were legal") because that's the story their leaking sources wanted them to promote.
These emails give interesting insight into the pressure that was put on the DOJ by former Vice President Cheney, Harriet Miers, David Addington, and President Bush to publish the opinions expressed in the "torture memos", that the use of these various techniques (that were already being used) were legal. Comey even mentioned that he believed that this program would eventually become public and that the Administration would justify their actions by pointing to these very DOJ opinions. Greenwald points out the important point that the pressure being put on the DOJ to release these opinions, are a very good indication that the opinions were released not in good faith, but because of the intense pressure that the Bush Administration put on DOJ so that they would release opinions that were concurrent with what they wanted to do.