Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Some thoughts provoked by John Yoo

Last week, my book researcher, Kyle Flynn, went to see John Yoo speak. Here are some thoughts provoked by the experience: By Kyle Flynn Best Defense Special Operations Correspondent John Yoo, the former deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice during George W. Bush’s first term, ...

Melissa Golden/Getty Images
Melissa Golden/Getty Images
Melissa Golden/Getty Images

Last week, my book researcher, Kyle Flynn, went to see John Yoo speak. Here are some thoughts provoked by the experience:

By Kyle Flynn
Best Defense Special Operations Correspondent

Last week, my book researcher, Kyle Flynn, went to see John Yoo speak. Here are some thoughts provoked by the experience:

By Kyle Flynn
Best Defense Special Operations Correspondent

John Yoo, the former deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice during George W. Bush’s first term, appeared at American Enterprise Institute, where he is also a visiting scholar, to discuss his new book Crisis and Command, the last in his trilogy concerning the political, constitutional, and legal dilemma brought on by 9/11 and the Bush administration’s handling of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).

For those of you who missed the less-than-enthralling discussion, do not fret, you can catch Yoo’s recent appearance on the "Daily Show" with funny man Jon Stewart. And for those of you interested in a more serious book review, check out the excellent ones that appeared in the Washington Post and the National Interest.

As one of the co-authors of the now infamous memos justifying waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques, Yoo solidified his position on one side of the most polarizing national security, ethical, and constitutional debates of our time. Whether you believe Yoo to be a bright and loyal civil servant, a disgraced monster and criminal, or something in between, is a matter of opinion. Having been to SERE school at Mackall, I feel that torture is too strong a word to describe what Yoo laid out in the memos. I also assume, perhaps wrongly, that other people whom shared that experience would agree. This is not a defense of Bush’s decision to institutionalize what some view as torture as a policy. It is purely my perspective on why the Army Field Manual may not be the best approach to dealing with insurgents in Afghanistan or al Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula.

Playing catch and release may be fun while fishing for striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay; it’s not so fun when you’re attempting to clear an area of insurgents in Oruzgan. To secure an individual, send him off to Bagram Air Base, and then have him back on the street within seventy-two hours can be frustrating — especially when you catch that same individual planting IEDs in the same location three weeks in a row. If this was a result of too rigid guidelines or poorly trained interrogators remains moot. But our enemies are not ignorant and good intentions do not always result in sound policy.

The story of John Yoo is controversial, complex, and somewhat ironic. Yet Yoo does not shy away from his convictions. Love him or hate him, the tenured Berkeley professor has become the poster boy for the Bush Administration’s legal pursuit of the Global War on Terrorism. In his latest book, Yoo argues that the executive branch was designed by the founders to be able to respond swiftly to unanticipated threats. Following a long line of presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt whom all were charged with usurping Congress for various reasons and lengths of time during their presidencies, Yoo contends the "Constitution is deliberately vague on the limits of executive power so as to allow strong presidents leeway to act in defense of the nation in times of crisis." To see if Yoo makes a compelling case, you will have to read the book.

One interesting note from yesterday’s panel is that when asked which former executive Yoo believes President Obama most resembles, he answered with Dwight Eisenhower. Personally very popular, even if his policies were not, Eisenhower ran a strong campaign against the policies of Harry Truman’s administration. Similarly, President Obama ran against the policies of George W. Bush. But rather than shift away from some of the most tightly held and controversial national security policy secrets, Yoo suggests, the current administration chose to continue down a similar path.

Tom again: Personally, I have a different view of John Yoo.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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