Is an Objective Appraisal of John Yoo’s Work Possible?

Let me begin by saying I have respect for John Yoo. Before 9/11, his presidential scholarship was uniformly thought to be of the highest academic standard. He is still greatly respected by his colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere. In person, he is unfailingly polite and intellectually curious. It is wrong to lay at his door all of the hubris that has been exhibited by the present administration and that led to our seriously tragic and mistaken disregard of international agreement and our deeply costly occupation of Iraq without well-conceived purpose or strategy.

While there has been a feeding frenzy of criticism directed toward his recently released 2003 memorandum , and some of that criticism is deserved or understandable, some frankly is over-the-top, and insufficiently appreciative of the law and the facts as Professor Yoo confronted them.

Geneva Conventions

First, on the Geneva Conventions applicability to al Qaeda there was virtually no one in any part of the government, presidential appointment or career public servant, who thought this Convention applied to these unlawful combatants. Justice Stevens thought differently about Common Article 3 in Hamdan , but his interpretation was hardly accepted wisdom. That makes sense then and now. Individuals who observe no dignity of human life and who, contrary to every law of war, target civilian populations have been since the time of Bracton or before outside the protections of civil society. There was some discussion, nevertheless, of whether as a policy matter the Conventions should have been extended to al Qaeda and there was considerable disagreement about how the Conventions applied to the Afghanistan and the Taliban.  Here there is reason to believe that the administration in not opting to apply the Convention committed error.  But, of course, this is wonderfully clear hindsight.  Functionally, the administration proclaimed itself to be extending equivalent humane treatment, and perhaps in the main, it did, but the photos of Abu Ghraib would leave an indelible refutation.

Better to Put It in Writing

There is reason to believe that Professor Yoo presented both sides of these difficult questions in his oral briefings to his superiors.  It is unfortunate this more balanced appraisal was not memorialized.  Recently, in Esquire , the Professor stated:  “these were not easy questions. Whether it was a war or not, the question of whether Geneva Conventions applied to al Qaeda was a straightforward question, at least to me. The policy question is much more difficult, whether they should apply to them as a matter of policy.”  Professor Yoo here shows a keen appreciation for the fact that what is legally permitted is not necessarily what should be prudently done.  He shows an extraordinary appreciation for not misleading his military clients, which is somewhat remarkable, given the later, more sweeping nature of the memorandum.  Nevertheless, the Professor reports that he was concerned about the “balance” of the advice giving, asking “Is this going to degrade military discipline? Is it going to give us a bad image versus does it produce gains in security? Is it part of the message that terrorists are not going to be given the same status as people who follow the rules? It’s a very difficult trade off. And then it’s harder and harder because there’s the question that if you don’t give them full Geneva Convention protection, what are you going to give them? That’s a hard question, too. I think the legal questions are much easier than those fine hard-grained policy issues. I think those are very hard questions. It’s not my job to say what they should do.”

Not His Job

The last point - that it was not OLC’s job to set policy is very important to remember.  One wonders if the decision-makers remembered this, or if OLC should have even more strenuously than usual given emphasis to this point that is virtually a uniform recital in OLC advice giving.   It may be convenient for the fingers to be pointed at Professor Yoo, but it is not beyond reason to think that there was a fundamental confusion in the White House between what was “legal” and what was “right.”  To be sure, Professor Yoo cannot be fully excused here because it is OLC’s job to both make that plain and also not to overstate what is “legal” as an advocate would, and unfortunately, the memos are not the ideal on either score.

I f You Can Do Better, Why Didn’t You?

Professor Yoo’s work has been called “slapdash” by Professor Goldsmith.  Professor Goldsmith has written an important book on his very short tenure in OLC (nine months).  I have reviewed and complimented the book in part in the forthcoming issue of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, but in fairness, Professor Goldsmith did his nation a disservice by “dropping into” the OLC role for such a short period.  He is an able lawyer, but allowing himself to use government service in this pivotal spot between two academic appointments added more than he may fully appreciate to the ill-considered advice going to the White House from DOJ generally.  Professor Yoo was Jack Goldsmith’s mentor and supporter, and it is hard for him to comment beyond saying that some of his criticism is “unfair.”  It is “because Goldsmith never issued an opinion of his own. He’s certainly free to criticize. It goes back to unless you’ve actually made the hard decision yourself, then you don’t really know how you think it through, what you would do. So he says “slapdash opinion,” but we have no idea what he would have done, because he left.”

Nobody Home

Professor Yoo relies also on the “normal” review process in the Department, but in truth, that did not exist both because of the abnormal times, the extraordinary turnover in the Office, and the strength of John’s talent.  To say that the Attorney General signed off is simply not to say a great deal since those selected for even that post in this administration were more likely “friends,” or saw themselves as answerable to the White House rather than the keepers of the integrity of the executive and the law.

In his book, Professor Goldsmith dwells on the statute Professor Yoo borrowed by analogy to give meaning to the often vaguely worded provisions against torture.  He does not say what source he would have used and why it was more analogous.  The phraseology “organ failure or death,” was at least specific, and had been written into law by Congress.  Professor Yoo concedes that it is fair to criticize his legal analogy, but then, one has to supply something else to make things specific.  Of course, once having chosen this phraseology, with all of its attendant harshness, it should have brought home to the Professor and those who he was advising that the United States was sailing into very troubled waters.  It would likely be accused of besting the terrorists at their own awful game - of disregarding the sanctity of the human person.  It is not at all clear this was grasped that what the government was proposing to do in interrogation practice was not just “unpleasant” as the Professor put it, but except in the most extraordinary of circumstances (ticking bombs about to take out millions), unthinkable and wrong.

Law Is Not Morality

When Esquire asks if he had “any moral qualms,” of course he says yes, but reverts to the law, saying “again, just because the statute says – that doesn’t mean you have to do it. You’re right, there’s still the moral question – after you’ve answered the legal question – whether you should do it at all.”  John was relying on the usually narrow role of OLC to convey that or the balance of his memorandum, but having written in a style contrary to the usual OLC role, could that really be grasped?  As it turned out, it was not.

The Totality of the Circumstances  

The Fourth Amendment portions of the Yoo memorandum are likewise subject to misreading for similar reasons.  Again, I think it fair to note that any memorandum written within a few weeks of the fall of the twin towers would naturally view the nation as under attack and at war.  Soldiers on a foreign field of battle do not have Fourth Amendment limits on their operations.  It was logical to think that was true for domestic military action aimed at enemies or belligerents within the United States as well.  The passage of the AUMF was then, and is now, viewed as a legislative endorsement of making war on those who executed the attack against us as well as those who aided and abetted them.  What is remarkable is that two years later in 2003 the same proposition seems to have become doctrine even as the context was different.

It is also possible to fault Professor Yoo for not writing more narrowly given what he likely knew was the anticipated audience.  Statements like “Our office recently concluded that the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations,” without qualification were certain to mislead non-lawyers receiving the document. In the legal context of foreign affairs which our founders painted with fine point brush in hazy gray to deliberately allow for the unforeseen, it is seldom prudent to spray paint in black and white.

The Professor relies upon Verdugo-Urquidez , as well as the Supreme Court’s treatment of the destruction of property for the purposes of military necessity.  This is plausible, but should also have been acknowledged to be scant precedent derived from considerably different facts. U.S.v Verdugo-Urquidez involved a search of the property of a foreign national that was conducted in Mexico with the authorization of the Mexican government. Obviously, there is nothing domestic about that. 

To his credit, Professor Yoo did caution that his analysis “should not be confused with a theory that the Constitution somehow does not “apply” during wartime.”  But this again warranted greater explanation, since his point of reference is the civil war case of Ex parte Milligan, 1866), which had it been fully explained would have been a reminder that the Bill of Rights is fully applicable domestically in wartime to U.S. Citizens.

Of course, the Justice Department has since disavowed both memoranda, properly noting that “Whether a particular search or seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment requires consideration of the particular context and circumstances of the search.”

When the administration gave its legal reasons for the Terrorist Surveillance Program in January 2006, it gave a far more nuanced appraisal of the Fourth Amendment, focusing on special needs exceptions and the like.

What Have We Learned?

What is the importance, then, of the recently released 2003 memorandum?  In part, it illustrates that the nation was in crisis in 2001, and the crisis mentality shaped the legal analysis being given.  What is remarkable is that this attitude continued right through 2003.  When facing what was perceived to be a profound threat of uncertain dimension with the fear of even more devastating attack, I am not prepared to say that – in the 2001 memorandum that has yet to be released – the legal statement and reasoning should have been more carefully given, but two years later, when the circumstances could have been more objectively assessed, the standard arguably should have been different. 

Again, I am reasonably confident that thoughtful appraisers of executive branch lawyering like Professors Dawn Johnsen and Marty Lederman share my regret that the president never staffed OLC with individuals, who could have brought to bear a longer, more mature institutional memory that would have given him the full benefit of legal advice.  It was important for a Deputy like John Yoo, with his strong conception of presidential power to be present, but it was also important to have a senior counsel heading OLC who was not in the president’s usual orbit of hand-picked friends or advocates and who would have ensured that the Professor’s advice was juxtaposed and tested by the diplomatic and practical thinking of the Legal Advisor at State and the General Counsels of the military branches.  Of course, it would have been especially handy if there had been a steady hand in the front office capable of synthesizing the contradictory views of this complex area and withstanding the kind of internal political skepticism directed at the OLC lawyer in the room who raises a note of caution.

It seems unlikely that a lawyer attempting to preserve the objective, non-advocacy role of the OLC tradition would have concluded without qualification on the basis of little or no direct precedent that:

“Even if these statutes were [construed] to apply to persons acting at the direction of the President during the conduct of war, the Department of  Justice could not enforce this law or any of the other crirninal statutes applicable to the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction against federal officials acting pursuant to the President’s constitutional authority to direct a war. Even if an interrogation method arguably were to violate a criminal statute, the Justice Department could not bring a prosecution because the statute w6uld be unconstitutional as applied in this context.”

No doubt that is what the CIA wanted to hear, but given all the legal and policy imponderables that Professor Yoo has since acknowledged, that could not be said.