Op-Ed: Legitimizing Torture

Opinion by and
April 21, 2011, 12:27 a.m.

This Friday, UC-Berkeley Professor John Yoo will visit the Law School to speak at an event in room 290 from 12:45 to 2:00 p.m. Yoo’s presence on campus is an affront to the dignity of our community. It also undermines the University’s mission to train tomorrow’s leaders to follow the highest ethical standards. I ask all interested members of the Stanford community to join me in protesting this event.

Although the topic is the United States’ military actions in Libya, Yoo is best known for his work during the Bush Administration. From 2001 to 2003, he served as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). During his short tenure, Yoo authored several of the infamous “torture memos,” which provided legal cover for U.S. torture policies. It is difficult to exaggerate how extreme these memos were. Yoo himself has described them as allowing an interrogator to crush the testicles of a detainee’s child, so long as the interrogator had the right intentions (whatever those might be).

In the larger debate about national security, a wide variety of voices must be heard. Yoo’s is not one of them, however, because he has no credibility. At OLC, Yoo’s job was to candidly evaluate the law and advise the Executive branch on the legality of its proposed actions. Instead, Yoo unabashedly advocated for the most extreme kinds of torture, issuing legal opinions that shielded anyone who committed tortured up to the point of causing organ failure or death.

The legality of torture, whatever one’s view of its necessity, is hardly a simple question. Ratified international treaties, national laws, state laws and even common law doctrines all have something to say about the treatment of detainees. Yoo’s memos, however, dismissed each and every source of law as either irrelevant or completely inapplicable. His advice to the Executive Branch was that even if it was illegal to torture detainees, no criminal charges could stick so long as the interrogator’s specific intention wasn’t to cause the pain inflicted. In other words, mere knowledge that torture would hurt the detainee would not suffice: if an interrogator <I>really<P> meant to get the information he believed a detainee had, then the torture was merely incidental. Because Yoo’s memo was an official government opinion, anyone engaged in torture can now rely on it as a criminal defense, regardless of its validity. Thus, he created a legal catch-22 that, like a black hole, has sucked up any hope of the rule of law emerging in its wake.

The torture memos have left a permanent stain on the United States’ international reputation, one with which our government has not yet reckoned. In 2009, a report from the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Yoo “committed intentional professional misconduct when he violated his duty to exercise independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective, legal advice.” Unfortunately, a cowardly decision by Associate Deputy Attorney General John Margolis — who once said of himself, “I’m the department’s cleaner[,] I clean up messes,” and was also implicated in the politically-motivated U.S. Attorney firing scandal in early 2007 — single-handedly derailed this report. No matter. The “forward-looking” Obama Administration was happy with the outcome, having adopted many of the policies put into place by the Bush OLC. Now, on the basis of one attorney’s opinion, there will be no further investigations. Once opened, the option to torture — like Pandora’s Box — seems incapable of being closed.

Without fear of official recourse, John Yoo remains free to roam the lecture circuit, instead of contemplating his mistakes inside the walls of the federal prison system where he belongs. Although one can find a diversity of political voices supporting the United States’ torture policy, there is no reason that its architects should find a friendly audience at Stanford. I hope students from across the University will respectfully protest Yoo’s talk and make it clear that torture advocates are not welcome on this campus.

History will judge John Yoo for his actions. The Stanford community should do so, too.


Danny Cullenward

JD Candidate, Stanford Law School, Class of 2013; Ph.D. Candidate, Environment & Resources (E-IPER)

Login or create an account