The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

State Department’s top lawyer stepping down

State Department Counselor Harold Koh will leave government and return to teaching at Yale law school, after four years in a key role in setting the Obama administration’s legal policies dealing with international terrorism, the State Department has confirmed. "Harold Koh was thrilled to serve Secretary Clinton and President Obama as State Department legal advisor ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

State Department Counselor Harold Koh will leave government and return to teaching at Yale law school, after four years in a key role in setting the Obama administration's legal policies dealing with international terrorism, the State Department has confirmed.

"Harold Koh was thrilled to serve Secretary Clinton and President Obama as State Department legal advisor over the last four years. But his life is teaching, and he is ready to start the next chapter," a senior State Department official told The Cable.

There is no word yet on Koh's replacement. His resignation comes only days after the Pentagon's top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, also announced his plans to leave the administration.

State Department Counselor Harold Koh will leave government and return to teaching at Yale law school, after four years in a key role in setting the Obama administration’s legal policies dealing with international terrorism, the State Department has confirmed.

"Harold Koh was thrilled to serve Secretary Clinton and President Obama as State Department legal advisor over the last four years. But his life is teaching, and he is ready to start the next chapter," a senior State Department official told The Cable.

There is no word yet on Koh’s replacement. His resignation comes only days after the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, also announced his plans to leave the administration.

The Yale Daily News reported that Koh will return to Yale law as a full-time professor. He was dean of the law school from 2004 until 2009, when he was appointed by Obama to his State Department post. Koh is often noted as a defender of the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries, which some say is at odds with his previous statements criticizing the George W. Bush administration’s tactics in fighting the war on Islamic extremists.

"In this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks," Koh said in March 2010, in the administration’s first public defense of the killings.

Koh was also the target of some GOP senators, who alleged he was jeopardizing American sovereignty by supporting American acquiescence to parts of international law, such as when the State Department agreed to abide by two additional protocols to the Geneva convention in March 2011.

"Some Americans, including many leading academics and some high-level government officials, view sovereignty as an outmoded notion," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said in an infamously longwinded speech on international law at a think tank dinner last year, referring to Koh. "In certain American intellectual circles, sovereignty is viewed not as a principle to be upheld, but a problem to be remedied. That view, with roots that reach back decades, is particularly strong among some faculty members at our prestigious law schools."

Koh declined to be interviewed for this article. Kyl is also retiring this year.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.