John Yoo’s Defense of Himself Is as Persuasive as Most of His Legal Opinions

July 16, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

This is your horrible, dystopian future: John Yoo, the former Office of Legal Counsel official who had a hand in crafting the Bush administration’s detentions, interrogations and warrantless surveillance abuses, writes endless and endlessly misleading defenses of himself. Some people die because of Yoo’s cavalier relationship with the law — about 100, actually — and others get law school sinecures and limitless op-ed real estate to explain away what they did. Few people write so much for so long with so little self-reflection. You’ll be reading these op-eds in the nursing home. Yoo’s latest comes in response to Friday’s report from five inspectors general about the warrantless surveillance and data-mining escapades of the Bush administration. Welcome to your future.

Yoo starts things off with his typical flourish of disingenuousness:

Suppose an al Qaeda cell in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles was planning a second attack using small arms, conventional explosives or even biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies faced a near impossible task locating them. Now suppose the National Security Agency (NSA), which collects signals intelligence, threw up a virtual net to intercept all electronic communications leaving and entering Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan headquarters. What better way of detecting follow-up attacks? And what president — of either political party — wouldn’t immediately order the NSA to start, so as to find and stop the attackers?

Evidently, none of the inspectors general of the five leading national security agencies would approve.

Those inspectors general, in Yoo’s imagination, aren’t overworked bureaucrats in wrinkle-free shirts, cotton Dockers and overgrown haircuts, buried under endless reams of paper. They’re useful idiots for Osama bin Laden. In truth, the reason why the inspectors general don’t entertain that scenario is because it’s absurd. If the intelligence community knew what the “electronic communications” signatures heading into and out of Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan headquarters were, they could very easily obtain warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, because they’d possess individualized suspicion. This is an unproblematic case, fitting easily under the aegis of the law on Sept. 12, 2001.  It has absolutely nothing to do with what the inspectors general call the “President’s Surveillance Program.” That’s also why the battery of Justice Department leaders like Acting Attorney General Jim Comey, Associate Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Associate Deputy Attorney General Patrick Philbin fought to rein in the surveillance activities — because they were overbroad and outside of FISA, which Congress explicitly made the “exclusive means” for conducting legal foreign surveillance. Yoo continues:

It is absurd to think that a law like FISA should restrict live military operations against potential attacks on the United States.

Actually, it’s absurd to think that a law like FISA does. Yoo cites the 9/11 Commission, saying it found that “FISA’s wall between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence” proved to be such a hindrance, but that’s a misrepresentation. FISA has no such wall. The “wall” was an invention of the Justice Department under Janet Reno to separate foreign-collected surveillance from criminal investigations, nothing even close to “live military operations,” and in practice that bureaucratic restriction went too far and inhibited necessary FBI-CIA collaboration. The Bush administration’s response wasn’t to get Congress to change FISA; it was to entirely circumvent it.

Clearly, the five inspectors general were responding to the media-stoked politics of recrimination, not consulting the long history of American presidents who have lived up to their duty in times of crisis. More than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the FBI to intercept any communications, domestic or international, of persons “suspected of subversive activities . . . including suspected spies.”

You know what law, passed in 1978, didn’t exist when FDR was president? Yoo goes even further, and takes selective quotations from Jefferson and Hamilton to suggest that his long-discredited theory that presidents have king-like powers during times of war, and yet he never comes out and says it, because even in The Wall Street Journal people can recognize absurdity.

What’s amazing about Yoo’s caustic attack on the inspectors general report is that the report itself embarrasses Yoo but does little else. There’s no suggestion of prosecution, no recommendation of additional investigation, no harsh language. It says simply that Yoo says what he says in this op-ed and that his superiors at OLC were cut out of that loop. That’s all. Yoo’s not even in danger, if reports about Attorney General Eric Holder’s potential new investigation are to be believed, of moving into the crosshairs of the Justice Department. Today’s attack on the inspectors general is Yoo’s response to having his own words quoted back at him. Which, perhaps, is insult enough. It’s like seeing the next 30 years of your life unfold before your horrified eyes.

*You can follow TWI on Twitter and Facebook. *