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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Ex-Bush lawyer talks about torture memos

Visiting Chapman professor wrote opinions on interrogation methods.

The Orange County Register

ORANGE John Yoo has brought attention to the Chapman University School of Law, where he is a distinguished visiting professor, with his experiences in the Office of Legal Counsel during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Yoo wrote or co-wrote several memos justifying the use of aggressive interrogation tactics, including water boarding, with detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He took a leave from his duties as a professor at UC Berkeley's law school to teach a semester at Chapman.

Yoo is in headlines again, with Monday's release of some of his memos. To see the memos, click here.

Q. What brought you to Chapman?

A. The dean (John C. Eastman) is an old friend of mine. He called me up and asked if I would be interested in coming down as a distinguished professor. I had never lived in L.A., and I don't know much about the southern half of the state, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to kind of learn about it. I'm so ignorant; I didn't realize that Orange County and L.A. are very different places. It was a change of pace and a different environment.

Q. Were you surprised with the student reaction at Berkeley to you being there?

A. Berkeley is sort of a magnet for hippies, protesters and left-wing activists. So I'm not surprised that being one of the few recognizable conservatives on campus that I would generate a lot of heat and friction. It happened well before working in the Bush administration.

Q. Have you done anything interesting since moving to Southern California?

A. I'm getting in shape, which everyone here seems to be in. I went and joined this L.A. Sports Club down in Irvine, and Kobe Bryant works out there. I also go to Garden Grove and Westminster a lot. My wife is half-Vietnamese and I'm Korean and the ethnic diversity here is incredible. The whole food here is way better, because it's made authentically.

Q. How interesting was it to practice law in all three branches of government?

A. They each have different perspectives on what the law is, and they also have different institutional interests. I think in war time or an attack like 9/11, the executive branch often has to respond first. It's designed by the Constitution to respond immediately. Congress always wants to participate, and it wants to watch what the executive branch is doing and criticize when (Congress) thinks it's getting it wrong. It likes to take responsibility when things go well. The judiciary also has its own set of interests, because it wants to be careful about not becoming too political.

Q. You recently wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal criticizing President Obama for closing Guantanamo Bay.

A. He's really restricting what the CIA can do in the war on terrorism. That's my opinion. Now that I'm not in the government, part of my role, because I have a certain amount of expertise, is to try to keep the government honest. I wrote: This might be the right thing to do, but here are the consequences. People in the public should be aware of them when he makes his choice. It has an upside and a downside. Every government choice has that. When I was in the government, I did not have a problem with people writing columns criticizing our decisions.

Q. What needs to be understood with governmental decisions?

A. There are tradeoffs inherent in every question. Someone can say, "I think it's more important that other countries have a more favorable opinion of us than any intelligence we gain from interrogation." That's a benefit and a cost.That's the cost we will get less information about the enemy.

Q. Do you have a different perspective as a private citizen?

A. The thing I am really struck with is that when you are in the government, you have very little time to make very important decisions. You don't have the luxury to research every single thing and that's accelerated in war time. You really have decisions to make, which you could spend years on. Sometimes what we forget as private citizens, or scholars, or students or journalists for sure (he laughs), is that in hindsight, it's easier to say, "Here's what I would have done." But when you're in the government, at the time you make the decision, you don't have that kind of luxury.

Q. Is there anything you would have done differently?

A. These memos I wrote were not for public consumption. They lack a certain polish, I think would have been better to explain government policy rather than try to give unvarnished, straight-talk legal advice. I certainly would have done that differently, but I don't think I would have made the basic decisions differently.

Q. Is it normal practice to give just the straight opinion?

A. I think the job of a lawyer is to give a straight answer to a client. One thing I sometimes worry about is that lawyers in the future in the government are going to start worrying about, "What are people going to think of me?" Your client the president, or your client the justice on the Supreme Court, or your client this senator, needs to know what's legal and not legal. And sometimes, what's legal and not legal is not the same thing as what you can do or what you should do.

Q. Do you worry about your legacy?

A. No, I don't, so much. I do have the luxury of being a scholar, so I have the time to write books. People will make their judgments about someone years or decades later. The best I can do is explain what I think and why I do what I do.

Q. The Department of Justice is looking into the legality of some of the memos you wrote. Is this a possible cost?

A. I wish they weren't doing it, but I understand why they are. It is something one would expect. You have to make these kinds of decisions in an unprecedented kind of war with legal questions we've never had to think about before. We didn't seek out those questions. 9/11 kind of thrust them on us. No matter what you do, there's going to be a lot of people who are upset with your decision. If Bush had done nothing, there would be a lot of people upset with his decision, too. I understood that while we were doing it, there were going to be people who were critical. I can't go farther into it, because it's still going on right now. I'm not trying to escape responsibility for my decisions. I have to wait and see what they say.

Q. What's in your future?

A. I'm writing this book that I'm still working on, just a few lines here and there, about the history of presidential powers. I'm working on another book, and I'm travelling around doing speeches and conferences. If I never serve in government again, that would be fine with me. I'm happy with my job as a professor.

Q. What's on your iPhone?

A. I can't get the thing to work right now, so I don't have any music. I have a lot of books. There's an enormous amount of ancient literature that you can download for free, so that's what's on there. In terms of music, what I tend to listen to is classical music and then Top 40. Basically, there's a 400-year gap in my knowledge of music.

John Yoo pauses to gather his thoughts before talking about the memos he wrote on behalf of the Justice Department.