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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)

Coming of age in an anti-communist household, Yoo said, he associated strong opposition to communist rule with the Republican Party and was himself "attracted to Reagan's message." What he liked most in conservatism was "the grounding in reason and reasonableness."

Yoo attended Episcopal Academy, a private religious school where he studied history, Latin and Greek. Then came Harvard, where he discovered that many people he encountered "were very different-minded, who thought that conservatives were actually sort of stupid or backward." He studied diplomatic history and worked for the school newspaper, where in 1988 he wrote a presidential endorsement of George H.W. Bush rejected by the editorial board's liberal majority.

"It got even worse at law school," Yoo said, recalling the first meeting he attended at the Federalist Society, a national organization of conservatives and libertarians, which attracted all of nine people. Critical of some fellow students who, he said, considered abortion and affirmative action to be the era's most important questions, he settled on matters of war and peace.

With the help of his Federalist Society contacts, he landed a clerkship with U.S. Appeals Judge Laurence H. Silberman, known for his experience in national security issues. Soon after being hired at Berkeley, which Yoo described as the best school to offer him a tenure-track job, he left for the Supreme Court, where he clerked for Thomas and played squash with Justice Antonin Scalia.

Yoo reached the Judiciary Committee staff after Hatch began a search for bright, conservative up-and-comers. Cooney, the staff director, said Yoo maneuvered well: "His smarts are undeniable, but unlike others of similar or equal wattage, he has an appreciation for the political nature of D.C."

Returning to Berkeley, Yoo -- who had interned for the Wall Street Journal -- turned to his legal writings and op-eds. He earned tenure in 1999.

Along the way, he became a regular at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where he often found himself in sync with international law skeptic John R. Bolton, an ally of Cheney's and now ambassador to the United Nations. Yoo also testified to the GOP-led Florida legislature during the 2000 presidential recount.

Despite his rsum and connections, Yoo required a particular convergence for his views to become as influential as they did. He needed a well-placed position, a national crisis and a receptive audience. He quickly got all three.

Known for his belief in a strong presidency, he joined the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the attorney general and the White House, in July 2001. Two months later came the terrorist attacks and the rush to respond. Soon, Yoo found his audience in the highest echelons of the White House, where the president and vice president already tended to see the courts, Congress and international conventions as constraints on the conduct of foreign affairs and national security.

"He was the right person in the right place at the right time," said Georgetown University's David Cole, a constitutional scholar and administration critic. "Here was someone who had made his career developing arguments for unchecked power, who could cut-and-paste from his law review articles into memos that essentially told the president, 'You can do what you want.' "

In a series of opinions, Yoo argued that the Constitution grants the president virtually unhindered discretion in wartime. He said the fight against terrorism, with no fixed battlefield or uniformed enemy, was a new kind of war.

Two weeks after Sept. 11, Yoo said in a memo for the White House that the Constitution conferred "plenary," or absolute, authority to use force abroad, "especially in response to grave national emergencies created by sudden, unforeseen attacks on the people and territory of the United States."

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