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Defending Jack Yoo

| Sunday, March 15, 2009


If you want to be a successful politician, you have to be popular. If you want to be a statesman, you have to be well nourished, aged and act with dignity.

Should you seek either or both accolades in this town, you need to match a very short memory to an ability not to laugh hysterically (and sometimes sadly) at the misjudgments occasioned by those long admired.

Which brings us to the British knighthood bestowed upon Sen. Edward Kennedy, which can best be forgotten by quoting a Londoner, overheard saying, "It's enough to make a cat laugh!"

This is about the apparently necessary current fashion in our city of only speaking evil of former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, their advisers and their actions while in office.

For sure they made mistakes. Some of their advisers were fools. Others were knavish. But so were others long before 2001. When we choose to look at past events, with the advantages of the Internet, time and greater knowledge, there are enough mistakes to sink the global ark.

These days, Washington remains abuzz with two coincidences thousands of miles apart.

One is the indictment of the sitting president of Africa's largest country, Sudan, by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is U.N.-supported and staffed largely by distinguished lawyers from the "developing world."

Second is the release by our new attorney general of nine previously confidential Department of Justice memoranda on basic constitutional questions -- which also include discussions relating to national security, torture, the Geneva Conventions and the confinement of terrorist prisoners.

A number of left-wing Democrats (such as Congressman John Conyers and others to both his left and right) see future political gains to be made -- and perhaps distractions from current disasters -- by attacking the deputy assistant attorney general and his colleagues, who wrote the memoranda. Their unstated hope is to attract the investigators of the ICC.

Some of the venom in the attacks comes from the misguided belief that the prime author of the memoranda had and has had the life and style aspired to by his enemies. Age, culture, ethnicity, education, marriage, status and profession all suggest on paper that John Choon Yoo is one of them. But he is not.

Jack Yoo, 42, was a legal adviser to President George Bush, a former member of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and a deputy assistant attorney general. He is a graduate of Harvard and Yale and a tenured law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He came to America as an infant with his Korean parents, both medical doctors.

All became citizens and he grew up in Philadelphia. Yoo married Elsa Arnett when both worked for The Harvard Crimson. She is the daughter of iconoclast Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Arnett, once of CNN, a New Zealander of Maori ancestry with a Vietnamese wife. Neither Elsa nor her father is a typical American-style conservative.

Yoo's early career was served as a law clerk to two famous conservative legal figures, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman. These positions carried him to the Senate Judiciary Committee as general counsel, to teaching at Boalt Hall on the Berkeley campus, to the Justice Department and to advising the president.

Then came the terrorist attacks of September 2001. This led to a concern in the White House that, in fighting terrorism and protecting the American people, the president must make decisions outside the parameters of the U.S. Constitution both with the help of Congress and as commander in chief.

Jack Yoo worked with the Hill committees that drew up the USA Patriot Act and was required to write a number of memoranda defining the duties of the commander in chief as exercised by a president at war.

When President Bush took his oath of office, he pledged to safeguard us from enemies, both domestic and foreign. Yoo took part in many White House meetings as a young constitutional lawyer, advising and opining in controversial memoranda on subjects ranging from domestic wiretapping to our First Amendment speech and press rights, through our Second, Fourth and Sixth amendment rights.

It is now alleged that Yoo's theories granted the commander in chief unlimited power that was "plenary" or total. And since the very vaguely defined "war on terrorism" has no time limits, the president could have unfettered power for an unlimited time.

Jack Yoo was not saying that such things would happen. Neither did he advocate them taking place. He was raising them as issues for the guidance of the executive branch. For this work, he is about to be pilloried by a large, powerful grouping of politicians and civil libertarians who today enjoy and exercise the same powers that Yoo wrote memoranda about.

Listening to John Conyers attacking the Yoo memoranda in a House Committee suggests that John Choon Yoo is the type of Republican-thinking leader that we need today.

Let's be there when he needs us.

Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer.

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