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Obama advisor who had decried 'war on terror' now defends drones

Harold Hongju Koh has become a symbol of national security policies that many feel are not significantly different than those of the Bush administration that he once criticized.

January 05, 2013|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau

A stellar student, Koh studied at Harvard, Oxford and Harvard Law School and was a clerk at the Supreme Court for Justice Harry Blackmun. He first dealt with the Guantanamo prison in 1992 when he led a legal fight up to the Supreme Court on behalf of Haitian refugees who were being held there. His efforts so impressed the State Department that the Clinton administration appointed him an assistant secretary for human rights.

Some former Bush advisors say they are surprised at how little criticism the Obama administration has faced over the drone strikes.

"There was an outpouring of outrage over detainees at Guantanamo, but hardly a peep from foreign governments about the 3,000 reportedly killed by drones in Obama's first term," said John B. Bellinger III, the State Department legal advisor under Bush. That may change in Obama's second term. Drones could become "Obama's Guantanamo," he said.

John C. Yoo, the Berkeley law professor who was the focus of ire in the Bush era for the so-called torture memo that justified harsh interrogations, said he found much to like these days.

"I don't want to speak specifically about Koh's record," Yoo said. "There is no doubt that on issues ranging from drones to military commissions to Guantanamo Bay, Obama and his legal advisors performed a 180-degree turnaround once in office. But the nation's security was better off that they were hypocritical, rather than maintaining a foolish consistency with the immature 2008 campaign views."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have been as vehement in their criticism of the drone strikes as they were of the Guantanamo prison. In July, they filed a suit over the killing of three U.S. citizens, including a 16-year-old boy, in a drone strike in Yemen.

"When a 16-year-old boy who has never been charged with a crime nor ever alleged to have committed a violent act is blown to pieces by a U.S. missile, alarm bells should go off," said Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer for CCR. "The U.S. program of sending drones into countries … against which it is not at war and eliminating so-called enemies on the basis of executive memos and conference calls is illegal, out of control and must end."

Yale has announced that Koh will be back in New Haven, Conn., at the end of January. Some in the legal world will be listening closely to what he has to say once he is out of government.

"Academics can take strong positions when they are speaking for themselves, but when they go into government, they have to compromise. Koh was asked to join a team," said University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner. "My guess: He believes he has done more good than not. But it will be interesting to hear what he has to say now."

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