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In Berkeley, Yoo feels at home as a stranger in a strange land

The Bush administration lawyer who gave legal cover to enhanced interrogation methods says he's happy teaching at Boalt Hall School of Law, despite calls for his ouster and protests by liberal groups.

March 29, 2010|By Carol J. Williams

Reporting from Berkeley — In his slate-blue suit and Republican-red tie, John Yoo stands out as discordantly formal among the denim- and turtleneck-clad faculty at Boalt Hall School of Law. Never mind how his politics play in what he derides as "the People's Republic of Berkeley."

John Yoo: An article in Section A on March 29 about legal guidance written by UC Berkeley law professor John C. Yoo and Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee when they were Justice Department lawyers in the George W. Bush administration said their advice "redefined torture as pain resulting in organ failure or death." Their guidance defined torture as pain that "must rise to the level of death, organ failure," but did not restrict it to acts that would actually result in organ failure or death. —

The former Bush administration lawyer who drafted what his critics call the "torture memos" is reviled by many in this liberal East Bay academic enclave, a feeling that is mutual though not, Yoo insists, wholly unpleasant.

"I think of myself as being West Berlin during the Cold War, a shining beacon of capitalism and democracy surrounded by a sea of Marxism," Yoo observes, sipping iced tea in the faculty club lounge, a wan smile registering the discomfort of colleagues walking by en route to the bar.

He sees his neighbors as the human figures of "a natural history museum of the 1960s," the Telegraph Avenue tableau of a graying, long-haired, pot-smoking counterculture stuck in the ideology's half-century-old heyday.

"It's like looking at the panoramic displays of troglodytes sitting around the campfire with their clubs. Here, it's tie-dye and marijuana. It's just like the 1960s, with the Vietnam War still to protest."

Yoo, 42, is unrepentant about his role in providing the CIA and other agencies with legal cover to conduct harsh interrogation of terror suspects with techniques such as water-boarding, which simulates drowning. In legal guidance he provided to the past administration, Yoo redefined torture as pain resulting in organ failure or death.

Calls for his ouster haven't subsided despite a Department of Justice decision in February that neither Yoo nor his former boss in the Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel, federal Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee, will face prosecution for advice to the administration that showed "poor judgment" but not willful breaking of the law.

Liberal civil rights advocates like the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alliance for Justice have demanded a full, independent investigation of Yoo and Bybee for their roles in the sanctioning of interrogation tactics the Obama administration has outlawed as violations of international treaties and U.S. moral values.

"I feel vindicated," Yoo said of the Justice Department internal affairs report that concluded a five-year investigation and dropped an earlier recommendation that he and Bybee be subjected to disciplinary action by their respective state bar associations.

Yoo sees the investigation as political score-settling by those who disagreed with the tough war-on-terror policies of the Bush White House.

"Someday the Republicans will be in charge again, and would you want to see them conducting ethics and criminal investigations into the Obama administration?" he says. "I wouldn't want to see that. So I hope that this closes this chapter in trying to use criminal and ethical charges to carry out political fights against the policy of a past administration."

He sees the persistent protests of his fitness to teach law as the campaign of a radical community intolerant of views that don't accord with their own.

After disclosure of the memos last year, Christopher Edley, the law school's dean, deflected demands that he fire Yoo, saying that he and other university administrators would wait for the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibilities report and then "review it carefully and consider whether there are implications for this campus."

Edley has said little since the Feb. 19 report that both detailed Yoo's and Bybee's misdeeds and eliminated an earlier finding that the lawyers had engaged in professional misconduct.

"I hope these new developments will end the arguments about faculty sanctions, but we should and will continue to argue about what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, in combating terrorism. That's why we are here," Edley said in a statement after the report was released.

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