Surprise! John Yoo Believes in Broad Executive Powers
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo has been spewing his grandiose views on presidential power ever since leaving the Bush administration. So although his latest book, “Crisis And Command,” is an unusually ambitious 446-page historical survey of executive power from George Washington to George W. Bush, his thesis will hardly surprise anyone who’s followed his recent career.
Max Boot writes in his blurb for the book that it’s “not the work of some wild-eyed zealot,” but the book is clearly another of Yoo’s attempts to defend his more extreme legal theories, including those that have been roundly criticized by prominent Republicans who served in the Bush administration. Many of those theories — such as the executive’s right to authorize torture and to detain terror suspects indefinitely — are responsible for some of the worst conundrums that President Obama finds himself in today.
Whether cast as Hamiltonian or Machiavellian, Yoo’s point is that “great” presidents have always interpreted their powers broadly in times of crisis, and pesky critics at the time always denounced them for breaking the law. To illustrate this, Yoo rolls out the usual examples — Abraham Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt interning the Japanese during World War II.
Although careful not to call George W. Bush a “great” or even “above-average” president, Yoo argues that Bush’s decisions to suspend habeas corpus, use “coercive interrogation methods” (Yoo never uses the word torture) and indefinitely detain without charge “al Qaeda terrorists” (actually, terror suspects) were all simply par for the course — the actions any decent president would take under the circumstances. In Yoo’s view, this is not presidential lawbreaking, even if the president’s actions do violate existing laws. Rather, Yoo argues, the Constitution accommodates such lawbreaking — what Yoo calls “the need to respond to extraordinary events through the President’s executive power” — which apparently is limitless.
This is how, at the Office of Legal Counsel, Yoo managed to advise the president that he could ignore the legal bans on torture and even the Bill of Rights on U.S. soil. It’s too soon to know if that was wrong, Yoo says, since we’re still confronting the terrorist threat. “Only when we have the benefit of distance will we know whether Bush’s aggressive use of executive authority was too much, too little, or just right,” he writes, so complaints about torture and warrantless wiretapping are little more than Monday-morning quarterbacking.
It’s worth remembering that Yoo, now a law professor at University of California – Berkeley, is the subject of a still-unreleased ethics investigation as well as a pending lawsuit, both of which address charges that he not only misconstrued the law but was actively involved in breaking it. His aggressive defense of limitless executive authority sounds even shadier when read in that light.
But Yoo is at his most disingenuous when he criticizes President Obama. In his afterword, Yoo writes that under Obama’s executive orders, the CIA now must conduct interrogations according to the rules of the Army Field Manual — which “amounts to requiring — on penalty of prosecution — that CIA interrogators be polite.”
In fact, the Army Field Manual allows for prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and inducing fear and humiliation of prisoners, as the Center for Constitutional Rights and others have noted. These can be used in combination, and can cause, as former Bush appointees and a congressional investigation have found, long-lasting psychological and physical harm.
Nonetheless, doing away with “the Bush system” means “we will get little timely information from captured al Qaeda terrorists,” Yoo asserts, especially if Obama allows them trials in federal court.
Yoo’s book was released too soon for his own good. Within just the last two weeks we’ve learned that an al-Qaeda terror suspect who tries to blow up a plane can be captured, arrested, charged in federal court and promptly provide information about others planning similar attacks on U.S. targets.
If Yoo’s views weren’t already thoroughly discredited, that last section of his book does the job — which just goes to show that Professor Yoo really should have stayed in academia. Yoo may have good stories to tell about the theories of executive power at work under Madison, Truman and Roosevelt, but when he applies theory to practice he fails miserably. Unfortunately, that’s not just a problem for his publisher. The entire nation is suffering for it now.