Wednesday, Apr 2, 2008 11:08 AM UTC

John Yoo’s war crimes

Why is one of the central perpetrators of a systematic torture regime teaching at Berkeley law school and welcomed in our most respectable opinion venues?

(updated below)

Yet again, the ACLU has performed the function which Congress and the media are intended to perform but do not. As the result of a FOIA lawsuit the ACLU filed and then prosecuted for several years, numerous documents relating to the Bush administration’s torture regime that have long been baselessly kept secret were released yesterday, including an 81-page memorandum (.pdf) issued in 2003 by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo (currently a Berkeley Law Professor) which asserted that the President’s war powers entitle him to ignore multiple laws which criminalized the use of torture:

If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.

As Jane Mayer reported two years ago in The New Yorker — in which she quoted former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora as saying that “the memo espoused an extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s Commander-in-Chief authority” — it was precisely Yoo’s torture-justifying theories, ultimately endorsed by Donald Rumsfeld, that were communicated to Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at the time of the most severe detainee abuses (the ones that are known).

It is not, of course, news that the Bush administration adopted (and still embraces) legal theories which vest the President with literally unlimited power, including the power to break our laws. There are, though, several points worth noting as a result of the disclosure of this Memorandum:

(1) The fact that John Yoo is a Professor of Law at Berkeley and is treated as a respectable, serious expert by our media institutions, reflects the complete destruction over the last eight years of whatever moral authority the United States possessed. Comporting with long-held stereotypes of two-bit tyrannies, we’re now a country that literally exempts our highest political officials from the rule of law, and have decided that there should be no consequences when they commit serious felonies.

John Yoo’s Memorandum, as intended, directly led to — caused — a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq. The reason such a relatively low-level DOJ official was able to issue such influential and extraordinary opinions was because he was working directly with, and at the behest of, the two most important legal officials in the administration: George Bush’s White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney’s counsel (and current Chief of Staff) David Addington. Together, they deliberately created and authorized a regime of torture and other brutal interrogation methods that are, by all measures, very serious war crimes.

If writing memoranda authorizing torture — actions which then directly lead to the systematic commission of torture — doesn’t make one a war criminal in the U.S., what does? Here is what John Yoo is and what he did:

“It depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.” Yoo wasn’t just a law professor theorizing about the legalization of torture. He was a government official who, in concert with other government officials, set out to enable a brutal and systematic torture regime, and did so. If this level of depraved criminality doesn’t remove one from the realm of respectability and mainstream seriousness — if not result in war crimes prosecution — then nothing does.

That John Yoo is a full professor at one of the country’s most prestigious law schools, and a welcomed expert on our newspaper’s Op-Ed pages and television news programs, speaks volumes about what our country has become. We sure did take care of that despicable Pvt. Lyndie England, though, because we don’t tolerate barbaric conduct of the type in which she engaged completely on her own.

(2) While Yoo’s specific Torture Memos were ultimately rescinded by subsequent DOJ officials — primarily Jack Goldsmith — the underlying theories of omnipotent executive power remain largely in place. The administration continues to embrace precisely these same theories to assert that it has the power to violate a whole array of laws — from our nation’s spying and surveillance statutes to countless Congressional oversight requirements — and to detain even U.S. citizens, detained on American soil, as “enemy combatants.” So for all of the dramatic outrage that this Yoo memo will generate for a day or so, the general framework on which it rests, despite being weakened by the Supreme Court in Hamdan, is the one under which we continue to live, without much protest or objection.

(3) This incident provides yet more proof of how rancid and corrupt is the premise that as long as political appointees at the DOJ approve of certain conduct, then that conduct must be shielded from criminal prosecution. That’s the premise that is being applied over and over to remove government lawbreaking from the reach of the law.

That’s the central argument behind both telecom amnesty and protecting Bush officials from their surveillance felonies (it’s unfair to hold them accountable for their illegal spying behavior because the DOJ said they could do it). It’s the same argument that CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden just made on Meet the Press as to why CIA interrogators should be immunized from the consequences of their illegal conduct (“when I go and tell him to do something in the shadows and point out to him it is perfectly lawful, that the Department of Justice has reviewed it . . . I need him to have confidence in that DOJ opinion”).

The DOJ is not the law. They are not above the law and they do not make the law. They are merely charged with enforcing it. The fact that they assert that blatantly illegal conduct is legal does not make it so. DOJ officials, like anyone else, can violate the law and have done so not infrequently. High DOJ officials — including Attorneys General — have been convicted of crimes in the past and have gone to prison.

Embracing this twisted notion that the DOJ has the authority to immunize any conduct by high government officials or private actors from the reach of the law is a recipe for inevitable lawlessness. It enables the President to break the law, or authorize lawbreaking, simply by having his political appointees at DOJ — including ideologues like John Yoo — declare that he can do it. As these incidents ought to demonstrate rather vividly, the mere fact that Bush officials at the DOJ declare something to be legal cannot provide license to break the law with impunity.

(4) Since the Nuremberg Trials, “war criminals” include not only those who directly apply the criminal violence and other forms of brutality, but also government officials who authorized it and military officials who oversaw it. Ironically, the Bush administration itself argued in the 2006 case of Hamdan — when they sought to prosecute as a “war criminal” a Guantanamo detainee whom they allege was a driver for Osama bin Laden — that one is guilty of war crimes not merely by directly violating the laws of war, but also by participating in a conspiracy to do so.

That legal question was unresolved in that case, but Justices Thomas and Scalia both sided with the administration and Thomas wrote (emphasis added):

“[T]he experience of our wars,” Winthrop 839, is rife with evidence that establishes beyond any doubt that conspiracy to violate the laws of war is itself an offense cognizable before a law-of-war military commission. . . . . In [World War II], the orders establishing the jurisdiction of military commissions in various theaters of operation provided that conspiracy to violate the laws of war was a cognizable offense. See Letter, General Headquarters, United States Army Forces, Pacific (Sept. 24, 1945), Record in Yamashita v. Styer, O. T. 1945, No. 672, pp. 14, 16 (Exh. F) (Order respecting the “Regulations Governing the Trial of War Criminals” provided that “participation in a common plan or conspiracy to accomplish” various offenses against the law of war was cognizable before military commissions).

The political reality is that high government officials in the U.S. are never going to be held accountable for war crimes. In practice, “international law” exists as a justifying instrument for powerful countries to impose their will on those which are less powerful, and war crimes tribunals are almost always a form of victor’s justice. So neither John Yoo, David Addington nor Alberto Gonzales, and certainly not their bosses at whose behest they were working, are going to be sitting in a dock charged with war crimes any time soon — regardless of whether they ought to be.

But those who propound these principles and claim to believe in them ought to apply them consistently. John Yoo is not some misguided conservative legal thinker with whom one should have civil, pleasant, intellectually stimulating debates at law schools and on PBS. Respectfully debating the legality and justification of torture regimes, and treating systematic torture perpetrators like John Yoo with respect, isn’t all that far off from what Yoo and his comrades did. It isn’t pleasant to think about high government officials in one’s own country as war criminals — that’s something that only bad, evil dictatorships have — but, pleasant or not, it rather indisputably happens to be what we have.

UPDATE: Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin makes a critical point (h/t John Cole):

Lawyers can make really bad legal arguments that argue for very unjust things in perfectly legal sounding language. I hope nobody is surprised by this fact. It is very commonplace. Today we are talking about lawyers making arguments defending the legality of torture. In the past lawyers have used legal sounding arguments to defend slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, rape (both spousal and non-spousal), Jim Crow, police brutality, denials of habeas corpus, destruction or seizure of property, and compulsory sterilization. . . . .

Orin [Kerr] wants to know whether John [Yoo]‘s theories are consistent with my views of the living constitution. If he wants to know as a substantive matter whether John’s theories of Presidential dictatorship are consistent with the Constitution’s text and underlying principles, they are not.

The fact that a lawyer does something in his capacity as a lawyer does not mean it’s proper, legitimate or legal. The fact that an argument is packaged in lawyerly wrapping doesn’t mean it’s reasonable or offered in good faith. All sorts of lawyers — from those representing crime families to those representing terrorists — have been convicted of crimes because they concealed and/or promoted their clients’ illegal acts. Lawyers aren’t any more immune from the rule of law than anyone else.

Harper‘s Scott Horton makes the point in much the same way:

These memoranda have been crafted not as an after-the-fact defense to criminal charges, but rather as a roadmap to committing crimes and getting away with it. They are the sort of handiwork we associate with the consigliere, or mob lawyer. But these consiglieri are government attorneys who have sworn an oath, which they are violating, to uphold the law.

Along those lines, Marcy Wheeler and Slate‘s Emily Bazelon both demonstrate how un-lawyerly Yoo’s opinions were. Yoo wasn’t acting as a lawyer in order legally to analyze questions surrounding interrogation powers. He was acting with the intent to enable illegal torture and used the law as his instrument to authorize criminality.

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DISCLOSURE: In the interest of full disclosure, it occurs to me, given my mention of the ACLU’s work here, that I ought to note that, as of six weeks ago or so, I began consulting with the ACLU on various matters. Obviously, I have been expressing the views in this post long, long before that began.

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