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Bush policymaker escapes Berkeley's wrath

UC Berkeley Professor John Yoo, who crafted the administration's policy on torture, is teaching at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, where the protests against him aren't as intense.

February 11, 2009|Susannah Rosenblatt

In Berkeley, city leaders branded him a war criminal and human rights activists put up a billboard to denounce him. But in suburban Orange County, Professor John Yoo -- the primary architect of the Bush administration's policy on harsh interrogation techniques that many consider torture -- has found relatively calmer waters.

Yoo is a visiting professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, on leave from his tenured post at UC Berkeley to teach foreign relations law.

Although a handful of protesters, one in a Statue of Liberty get-up and another in an orange Abu Ghraib jumpsuit and hood, demonstrated against Yoo on campus recently, law students said they appreciate the prestige and exposure he could bring the law school.

But a small group of local activists said they hope to stir up anger at the 14-year-old law school in the thick of conservative Orange County.

"Our aim is to get the man fired -- he has no business being in our community," said Pat Alviso, 56, of Huntington Beach, who heads the Orange County chapter of Military Families Speak Out. Her son is a Marine serving in Afghanistan who completed two tours in Iraq.

Chapman law school alumnus Michael Penn agrees: "I think it's a black eye to the school. . . . To me, he's a war criminal."

Yoo, a former Justice Department attorney, achieved notoriety by crafting memos -- later withdrawn by the department -- that narrowly defined torture and argued that Bush's authorization of controversial interrogation tactics against Al Qaeda did not violate the Geneva Conventions. The memos justified harsh treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, including the controversial waterboarding technique.

"People obviously love having someone as accomplished as he is there," said first-year law student Roxana Amini, adding that she would have preferred a different visitor. "Since Chapman's relatively new, we're just getting our name more out there. . . . Any publicity's good publicity."

That seems to be what Dean John C. Eastman had in mind when he invited Yoo, a friend from their days as clerks for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to the Orange campus.

"We are working very hard at fostering a broad ideological diversity here at the law school," Eastman said. Another of Chapman law school's visiting professors this school year is human rights expert Richard Falk, who has criticized the war in Iraq.

Yoo, who has taught at a number of universities around the world, said he was eager for the chance to spend time on a smaller, newer campus and to experience living in Southern California. Students and faculty, he said, have received him amiably.

"At Berkeley," Yoo said, "if you had three or four people, weird people dressed up in costumes in the same place, that would just be like people in line buying coffee."

As a conservative voice on the liberal UC campus, and with reams of essays and articles blasting him, Yoo said he is accustomed to being in the minority.

"I certainly don't get upset about being criticized," said Yoo, sitting in his fourth-floor campus office. "I would feel I wasn't doing my job as an academic if I wasn't writing or saying things that other people disagreed with."

For the most part, students at the Chapman law school have taken Yoo's presence in stride. Even those who don't agree with Yoo's conservative-leanings aren't mobilizing for his ouster. Rather, they seem to welcome his policy experience.

"I think it's interesting to have him there," said Billy Essayli, a second-year law student who heads the campus California Republican Lawyers Assn. Still, Essayli conceded that he was surprised there wasn't a greater public outcry at Yoo's arrival in January.

Chapman law professor M. Katherine B. Darmer "vehemently" opposes Yoo's ideas on broad executive power, but respects that he has taken responsibility for his views. However, she wrote in an e-mail: "There are many other faculty members -- including others on the political right -- whom I personally would have chosen rather than someone who is so closely associated with the use of tactics such as waterboarding."

The Berkeley City Council, for one, isn't crazy about Yoo. In December, city leaders agreed to send a letter to the U.S. attorney general supporting prosecution of Yoo and other Bush administration officials for war crimes, and urged UC Berkeley to fire him if he is convicted of human rights violations.

A spokeswoman for Berkeley Law said that the university respects city officials' opinions but that the city can't direct university policy. Most agitation against Yoo comes from the community, rather than students, although some law students have worn armbands against Yoo at graduation, said spokeswoman Susan Gluss. Outside protesters crashed one of Yoo's classes at Berkeley several years ago and were escorted out by police; he's been a faculty member there since 1993.

The anti-war activist group World Can't Wait has been most active in organizing against Yoo. The group maintains a website in protest, FireJohnYoo.org, and hopes to stage panels and distribute petitions at Chapman.

Yoo's ouster is more relevant than ever, according to organizers, as last month President Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA prisons, and barred torture.

For his part, Yoo has stayed true to form since arriving at Chapman: Last month, he wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal criticizing President Obama, saying he had opened the door to future terrorist acts in the U.S.

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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