from NY Times via truthout.org :
A Junior Aide Had a Big Role in Terror Policy
By Tim Golden
The New York Times
Friday 23 December 2005
Moments after planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, lawyers in the Justice Department's elite Office of Legal Counsel began crowding into the office of one of the agency's newest deputies, John C. Yoo, to watch the horror unfold on his television set.
"We all stood around watching this event, and he just seemed very calm, like he wasn't going to let these terrorists stop him from doing his work," recalled Robert J. Delahunty, a friend of Mr. Yoo's who worked in the office.
Fearful of another attack and told that all "nonessential personnel" should evacuate, Mr. Delahunty and others streamed out of the department's headquarters and walked home. Mr. Yoo, then a 34-year-old former law professor whose academic work had focused on foreign affairs and war-powers issues, was asked to stay behind, and he quickly found himself in the department's command center, on the phone to lawyers at the White House.
Within weeks, Mr. Yoo had begun to establish himself as a critical player in the Bush administration's legal response to the terrorist threat, and an influential advocate for the expansive claims of presidential authority that have been a hallmark of that response.
While a mere deputy assistant attorney general in the legal counsel office, Mr. Yoo was a primary author of a series of legal opinions on the fight against terrorism, including one that said the Geneva Conventions did not apply and at least two others that countenanced the use of highly coercive interrogation techniques on terror suspects. Recently, current and former officials said he also wrote a still-secret 2002 memorandum that gave legal backing to the administration's secret program to eavesdrop on the international communications of Americans and others inside the United States without federal warrants.
A genial, soft-spoken man with what friends say is a fiercely competitive streak, Mr. Yoo built particularly strong working relationships with several key legal officials in the White House and the Pentagon. Some current and former government officials contend that those relationships were in fact so close that Mr. Yoo was able to operate with a degree of autonomy that rankled senior Justice Department officials, including John Ashcroft, then the attorney general.
More than two years after Mr. Yoo returned to teaching, controversy over some of the legal positions he staked out for the administration in his two years in government has only continued to grow. Last year, an opinion he wrote on interrogations with the head of the legal counsel office, Jay S. Bybee, was publicly disavowed by the White House, a highly unusual step. Now, the revelation of the eavesdropping program has renewed the criticism.
In the uproar, Mr. Yoo has stood fast and even smiled cheerfully. Despite occasional campus protests and calls for his resignation, he has remained - somewhat incongruously but, he says, quite happily - on the law faculty at the liberal University of California, Berkeley. He keeps a busy schedule of speeches and debates at colleges and universities around the country. He is promoting a new book, and appears frequently on television to take on legal and policy issues that many former officials will discuss only under cloak of anonymity.
"I didn't go into these subjects looking for a brawl," Mr. Yoo said in an interview. Of his work at the Justice Department he added: "I had this job, and I had these questions to answer. I think it's my responsibility to explain how I thought them through."
Mr. Yoo is often identified as the most aggressive among a group of conservative legal scholars who have challenged the importance of international law in the American legal system. But his signature contributions to the policies of the Bush administration have had more to do with his forceful assertion of wide presidential powers in wartime.
While Mr. Yoo has become almost famous for some of his writings - the refutation of both his academic and government work has become almost a cottage industry among more liberal legal scholars and human rights lawyers - much less is known about how he came to wield the remarkable influence he had after Sept. 11 on issues related to terrorism.
That Washington tale began about a decade before Mr. Yoo joined the administration in July 2001, when he finished at Yale Law School and won a clerkship with Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a keen spotter of young legal talent and a patriarch of the network of conservative lawyers who have occupied key positions throughout the Bush administration.
By then, Mr. Yoo already thought of himself as solidly conservative. He had grown up with anticommunist parents who left their native South Korea for Philadelphia shortly after Mr. Yoo was born in 1967, and had honed his political views while an undergraduate at Harvard.
From the chambers of Judge Silberman, Mr. Yoo moved on to a clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, stopping briefly at Berkeley. Justice Thomas helped place him with Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, as general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Along the way, Mr. Yoo passed up a chance to work in the Washington office of the law firm Jones Day, where he caught the eye of a senior partner, Timothy E. Flanigan. After five years that Mr. Yoo spent at Berkeley, writing on legal aspects of foreign affairs, war powers and presidential authority, the two men met up again when Mr. Yoo joined the Bush campaign's legal team, where Mr. Flanigan was a key lieutenant.
Mr. Flanigan became the deputy White House counsel under Alberto R. Gonzales. Mr. Yoo ended up as a deputy in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, or the OLC, a small unit of lawyers that advises the executive branch on constitutional questions and on the legality of complex or disputed policy issues.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Yoo - the only deputy with much expertise on foreign policy and war powers - began dealing with the White House and other agencies more directly than he might have otherwise.
Mr. Flanigan, who had led the legal counsel office himself at the end of the first Bush administration, was acutely aware of its role in providing a legal grounding for the kinds of policy decisions the White House faced. He called over for advice soon after the World Trade Center towers fell.
"John Yoo, given his academic background and interests, was sort of the go-to guy on foreign affairs and military power issues," Mr. Flanigan said in an interview, referring to the legal counsel office staff. "He was the one that Gonzales and I went to to get advice on those issues on 9/11, and it just continued."
The torrent of opinions that Mr. Yoo churned out in the months that followed was striking, notwithstanding the research and writing assistance he had from lawyers on the office staff. Although only a portion of those documents have become public, copies of some still-confidential memorandums reviewed by The New York Times give a flavor of their sweeping language.
On Sept. 20, Mr. Yoo wrote to Mr. Flanigan about the president's constitutional authority to conduct military operations against terrorists and nations that support them. He noted that two Congressional resolutions recognized the president's authority to use force in such circumstances.
"Neither, however, can place any limits on the president's determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing and nature of the response," he wrote. Similar language concludes a memo written by Mr. Yoo on Sept. 25, only a week after Congress authorized President Bush to use military force against Al Qaeda and its supporters.
"One concern that people have raised is that John had a lot of these views going into the government and was perhaps overeager to write them," said Curtis A. Bradley, a law professor at Duke University who, like Mr. Yoo, has written skeptically about the import of international law. "In terms of war powers, you won't find a tremendous number of scholars who will go as far as he does."
Mr. Yoo's belief in the wide inherent powers of the president as commander in chief was strongly shared by one of the most influential legal voices in the administration's policy debates on terrorism, David S. Addington, then the counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney. Documents and interviews suggest that those views have been part of the legal arguments underpinning not only coercive interrogation and the prosecution of terrorism suspects before military tribunals but also the eavesdropping program.
Some current and former officials said the urgency of events after Sept. 11 and the close ties that Mr. Yoo developed with Mr. Addington (who is now Mr. Cheney's chief of staff), Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Flanigan and the general counsel of the Defense Department, William J. Haynes II, had sometimes led him to bypass the elaborate clearance process to which opinions from the legal counsel office were normally subjected.
Mr. Yoo's January 2002 conclusions that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan and that the conventions' minimum standards did not cover terrorists touched off a long, hard-fought battle within the administration, in which lawyers for the State Department and the military services strongly disputed his views. Thereafter, several senior officials said, those lawyers were sometimes excluded from the drafting of more delicate opinions.
For example, they said, Mr. Yoo's much-criticized 2002 memorandum with Mr. Bybee on interrogations - which said that United States law prohibited only methods that would cause "lasting psychological harm" or pain "akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure" - was not shared with either State Department or military lawyers, despite its implications for their agencies.
"They were not getting enough critical feedback from within OLC, or from within the Justice Department, or from other agencies," one former official said of Mr. Yoo's opinions. Officials said senior aides to Attorney General Ashcroft also complained that they were not adequately informed about some of the Mr. Yoo's frequent discussions with the White House.
Mr. Yoo said he had always duly notified Justice Department officials or other agencies about the opinions he provided except when "I was told by people very high in the government not to for classification reasons."
Yesterday, with controversy brewing again about some of the policies on which Mr. Yoo worked, he said he was unmoved.
"If you're being criticized for what you did and you believe that what you did was right, you shouldn't take it lying down," he said. "You should go out and defend yourself."