Scholar Stands by Post-9/11 Writings On Torture, Domestic Eavesdropping

John Yoo of the University of California at Berkeley worked from 2001 to 2003 at the Justice Department, where many of his writings helped shape the White House's post-9/11 policy.
John Yoo of the University of California at Berkeley worked from 2001 to 2003 at the Justice Department, where many of his writings helped shape the White House's post-9/11 policy. (By Karen Ballard -- Los Angeles Times)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005

John Yoo knows the epithets of the libertarians, the liberals and the lefties. Widely considered the intellectual architect of the most dramatic assertion of White House power since the Nixon era, he has seen constitutional scholars skewer his reasoning and students call for his ouster from the University of California at Berkeley.

Civil liberties advocates were appalled by a memo he helped draft on torture. The State Department's chief legal adviser at the time called his analysis of the Geneva Conventions "seriously flawed." Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, in a critique of administration views espoused by Yoo, "a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens."

Yoo has alienated so many influential opponents that he is considered unconfirmable for a judgeship or high office, not unlike a certain conservative jurist rejected by the Senate for the Supreme Court.

"Someone said to me that I was the Robert Bork of my generation," he reported the other day.

Yet Yoo, 38, an engaging and outspoken lifelong conservative who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, can be found at seminars and radio microphones, standing up for Bush administration legal arguments that will be studied for decades.

"The worst thing you could do, now that people are critical of your views, is to run and hide. I agree with the work I did. I have an obligation to explain it," Yoo said from his Berkeley office. "I'm one of the few people who is willing to defend decisions I made in government."

Those decisions, made when he was a mid-level Justice Department adviser, have been the most fiercely contested legal positions of the Bush presidency. Framing the battle against terrorism as a wartime emergency, Yoo redefined torture, reinterpreted the Constitution and classified as archaic the long-established humanitarian rules of the battlefield.

Yoo wrote a memo that said the White House was not bound by a federal law prohibiting warrantless eavesdropping on communications that originated or ended in the United States. When news of the program broke, members of both parties called for hearings.

Yoo believes he was correct, even if critics say the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks "threatens the very idea of America," as one editorial said. "It would be inappropriate for a lawyer to say, 'The law means A, but I'm going to say B because to interpret it as A would violate American values,'" Yoo said. "A lawyer's job is if the law says A, the law says A."

How Yoo, who has never met President Bush or Vice President Cheney, came to be a principal interpreter of laws and the Constitution for the Bush team is a story rooted in his conservative convictions and a network of like-minded thinkers who helped him thrive.

"He has succeeded and won people over and advanced his ideas," said Manus Cooney, who hired Yoo on to the Judiciary Committee staff of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) in 1995. "As far as conservative academics, I don't think there's anyone in the law whose contacts run deeper in the three branches, or higher."

Yoo traces his convictions in no small part to his parents, and Ronald Reagan. His father and mother are psychiatrists who grew up in Korea during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. They emigrated in 1967, when Yoo was 3 months old. They sought three things, he said: education, economic opportunity and democracy. They settled in Philadelphia because they admired Eugene Ormandy, then conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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