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Human rights advocate named State Department's top lawyer

Harold Hongju Koh, dean at the Yale Law School, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Bush administration's approach to the detention and trial of terrorism suspects.

March 25, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Harold Hongju Koh, an outspoken advocate of human rights and international law, has been chosen to be the top lawyer at the State Department.

Koh, dean at the Yale Law School, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Bush administration's approach to the detention and trial of terrorism suspects, calling a 2002 memo justifying harsh interrogation methods a "stain on our national reputation."

If confirmed as State Department legal advisor, he would have a key role in dismantling the Bush administration's approach to that issue and others.

The appointment continues the Obama administration's pattern of filling many legal posts with political liberals, such as Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., while awarding many national security positions to moderates, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The appointment of Koh was praised by rights activists, an important Democratic constituency that has not been pleased by administration steps so far.

"He has been a strong voice for both human rights and restoring the rule of law," said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

A Korean American and native of Boston, Koh has been the subject of speculation in legal circles that the Obama administration might tap him as the first Asian American Supreme Court justice.

Some conservative critics, worried that Koh might become an Obama pick for the Supreme Court, have taken issue with his support for international law, which they view as threatening to American sovereignty.

"He aims to use international bodies and treaties to deprive American citizens of their powers of representative government, and subject American government to rule by a transnational elite of leftist lawyers," said Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

John Radsan, who was assistant CIA general counsel from 2002 to 2004, said Koh approached issues related to the handling of accused terrorists as "a pure civil libertarian."

He said Koh is at the other end of the ideological spectrum from John C. Yoo, a visiting professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, who became well known during the Bush administration for writings that justified harsh physical treatment of terrorism suspects.

"He's the anti-Yoo," said Radsan, who is now a professor at William Mitchell College of Law.

Koh has been among those who have argued that terrorism detainees should be handled through the federal court system. Critics of this approach contend it would give accused terrorists procedural advantages and a soapbox to preach their views. It also could jeopardize intelligence information and cooperation from other countries, critics believe.

Koh has advocated use of the Army Field Manual's guidelines for treatment of detainees and has opposed "enhanced" interrogation techniques. Obama has ordered the CIA to follow the manual, which prohibits controversial detention and interrogation methods.

Koh has opposed the practice of "rendition" of terrorism suspects to foreign governments, and has condemned the Bush administration's view that it needed wide latitude to prosecute terrorists. Some legal analysts say that Koh's rejection of the war on terrorism raises questions about whether he believes strikes by U.S. Predator drone aircraft into Pakistan are legal.

Koh was assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor from 1998 to 2001, and worked at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from 1983 to 1985. He went to Harvard Law School and served as a law clerk for the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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