On John Yoo and the Legality of Torture

I don’t like John Yoo.

Yoo served in President Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel during the early years of his administration. Yoo was known to have penned two memos outlining the legal basis for detainee confinement at Guantanamo Bay and for coercive interrogation tactics — torture, let’s just say it — that led to prison abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

But the contents of those memos were unknown.

No longer.

In response to repeated inquiries by Senators Carl Levin and Patrick Leahy, the Justice Department declassified the memo yesterday. From the Washington Post‘s article:

Sent to the Pentagon’s general counsel on March 14, 2003, by John C. Yoo, then a deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the memo provides an expansive argument for nearly unfettered presidential power in a time of war. It contends that numerous laws and treaties forbidding torture or cruel treatment should not apply to U.S. interrogations in foreign lands because of the president’s inherent wartime powers.

“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,” Yoo wrote. “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.”

Interrogators who harmed a prisoner would be protected by a “national and international version of the right to self-defense,” Yoo wrote. He also articulated a definition of illegal conduct in interrogations — that it must “shock the conscience” — that the Bush administration advocated for years.

“Whether conduct is conscience-shocking turns in part on whether it is without any justification,” Yoo wrote, explaining, for example, that it would have to be inspired by malice or sadism before it could be prosecuted.

“Shock the conscience.”

The fact that someone giving President Bush and his administration legal advice that torture is legal shocks my conscience.

The fact that someone giving President Bush and his administration legal advice that laws and treaties don’t need to be followed so long as the President believes he’s doing the right thing shocks my conscience.

Jack Goldsmith in the Justice Department called it “an exercise in sheer power.” If the United States is at war, it argues, the President’s powers are unfettered. The President can do anything he desires, merely because he wants to.

This legal doctrine isn’t the product of two hundred years of American constitutional law. This legal doctrine is the product of totalitarian regimes like China, like Stalinist Russia, like Nazi Germany.

What we have here in an argument for Presidential dictatorship.

The United States is better than that.

Bill Clinton lied about a blow job and was disbarred. John Yoo tells the President that he is unfettered by laws and he now teaches law school.

The mind boggles.

How many people died because of this legal doctrine? How many people were maimed? How many people have suffered incalcuable mental harm?

This is wrong.

Who will be held accountable?

2 thoughts on “On John Yoo and the Legality of Torture

  1. I wanted to write about this so bad yesterday, but the words literally failed me. After finishing the memo in the afternoon, I was shaken for the rest of the day. I didn’t want to talk to anyone – not my friends, not my wife, not my children, no one. Ended up going to bed around 7:30 last night and still didn’t get much sleep.

    Hell, it’s almost noon today and I’m still dumbfounded.

  2. Having just watched Taxi to the Darkside I am also dumbfounded and shocked. I do not understand how they will be allowed to get away with this. Is there truly nothing that can be done? We grew up despising Nazis and filling our heads with the horrors of the holocaust. Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their minions are absolutely NO BETTER.

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