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Former Bush Administration Lawyer Still Flacking for Torture

John Yoo, the law professor who helped draft the infamous "torture memo," is still defending Bush's policies even though the rest of us have long lost patience.
 
 
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On Sunday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by John Yoo, the Berkeley law professor who, while working in the Justice Department, wrote a memo justifying torture. Even after the Abu Ghraib photos broke in the press, Yoo defended his position, telling one interviewer that Congress didn't have the power to -- wait for the metaphor -- "tie the president's hands."

Torture is in the news again, giving Yoo an opportunity to make his case once more. And just as the White House has worked hard in recent weeks to depict the occupation of Iraq as but a single battle in a larger "struggle for civilization," Yoo now believes that the right to torture -- or as he put it in the New York Times , interrogate "harshly" -- is just one front in a larger crusade.

Bush needs to torture people, Yoo believes, not to extract intelligence but to "reinvigorate the presidency." It takes a subtle legal mind to understand what water-boarding or sleep-deprivation has to do with Bush's other power grabs -- not just claiming the right to imprison without bringing formal charges or to engage in warrantless wiretaps, but to reclassify government documents made public by previous administrations, refuse to tell Americans what advice Enron and the oil industry gave to his energy task force, and issue hundreds of signing statements that empowered him with the right not to enforce laws that have absolutely nothing to do with national security. But professor Yoo sees the bigger picture. They are all moves in a larger fight to restore balance to the three branches of government, to roll back the "supremacy" assumed by the Congress and the judiciary in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.

We've heard this before, most notably from Dick Cheney, who believes that the greatest achievement of his administration was not the overthrow of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, not even the tax breaks bestowed on the rich, but the "restoration" of the "power and authority of the president" since the "low point" of the late 1970s, when Congress and the courts either passed or ruled on measures that sought to regulate the imperial presidency. In his op-ed, Yoo ticks off a number of insolent laws passed by Congress in the 1970s that have long been the bête noire of neocons, including the War Powers Resolution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

It is not, then, the libidinous 1960s that so repulses conservatives but rather the regulatory 1970s. But the kind of new Right Revisionism offered up by tenured radicals such as Yoo is fallacious, driven by either ignorance or a willful manipulation of the facts.

Take, for example, Yoo's extraordinary assertion that Congress attempted to leash the presidency not because of the disaster that was Vietnam or the crimes of Watergate but because during the 1970s "we had no serious national security threats to United States soil." This would be news to the first generation of neocons who in the 1970s manned the barricades in any one of the ever-metastasizing policy organizations -- Coalition for a Democratic Majority, the Committee for the Free World, Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy (which introduced the young Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz to venerable Cold War warriors such as Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze) and, of course, the Committee on the Present Danger, designed to warn America of, well, the ever-present danger.

Just as today's Project for a New American Century sounds familiar themes of enemy expansion, American weakness, and looming ideological conflict calculated to raise alarm and steel will, these corporate-funded action committees, while concerned with different aspects of foreign policy, gave neoconservatives a chance to rehearse the exaggerated rhetorical style for which they have since become famous. "War, not peace," the Council for Inter-American Security intoned, "is the norm in international relations." "WWIII is almost over," the Soviets are on the march and America is "everywhere in retreat." The crisis confronting the United States was not just strategic but "metaphysical." The "inability or unwillingness" of the America "either to protect or project its basic values and beliefs has led to the present nadir of indecision and impotence and has placed the very existence of the republic in peril."

Contrary to Yoo's blinkered account of an executive branch hamstrung by legislative and judicial supremacists, these conservative groups -- this administration's ideological forebears -- viciously undermined Jimmy Carter's foreign policy prerogative, derailing SALT II, delaying the Panama Canal treaty and preventing the White House from orienting diplomacy away from blind anti-communism. They wanted not a strengthened presidency but their strengthened president.

The new Right Revisionism espoused by Yoo, Cheney and others likewise exaggerates the power claimed by Congress in the 1970s to oversee intelligence gathering, covert operations and war making. Despite much posturing, Democrats in the House and Senate had little desire to hinder the president's ability to conduct foreign policy, building significant loopholes into legislation like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It is simply not true to claim, as does Yoo, that Congress since Vietnam has tried to "micromanage the executive branch."

While bad history, Yoo's op-ed at least admits that much of what is at stake in this administration's attempt to rewrite the Constitution into a Homeric epic of perpetual war has little to do with national security but rather with, as Bush recently put it in his White House coffee klatch with conservative pundits, changing America's domestic culture.

Neocons have long complained about the "culture of narcissism" that has taken over America since the 1960s. But in its place, they offer a culture of sadism, one that would condone torture so Bush doesn't have to tell us who influenced his energy policy. Now that's narcissistic.

Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University and is the author of a number of books, including the just published Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism .