"People v. John Yoo War Criminal"

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Both sides of torture-law debate aired in discussion at Brown

01:00 AM EST on Friday, February 20, 2009

By Lynn Arditi

Providence Journal Staff Writer

Former Bush administration official John Yoo, left, and Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, at Brown University last night.

The Providence Journal / Kris Craig

PROVIDENCE -- A leading human-rights advocate and a former White House legal advisor drew a crowd of more than 450 people yesterday to The Political Theory Project's Janus Forum Lecture at Brown University.

The topic of discussion: "Are there universal human rights and how far should we go to protect them?"

The speakers, who met each other for the first time yesterday, have for years been on opposite sides of a highly charged debate about the ethical, legal and political arguments of the Bush administration's attempt rewrite the laws on torture after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

John C. Yoo, now a professor at the University of California at Berkley, has become the public face of the Bush administration's "torture memo" for his role in helping to draft legal opinions that paved the way for waterboarding of prisoners and other harsh interrogation practices.

The Washington Post reported that the legal opinion that Yoo, then a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, helped draft in 2002 narrowed the definition of torture, stating that U.S. law against torture "prohibits only the worst forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" and therefore permits many others. The document, which became known as the "torture memo," was later denounced by successors in the office and subsequently withdrawn.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is demanding an update on the probe by the Justice Department, which is examining whether the lawyers who prepared the memos followed professional standards.

Since writing the memos, Yoo has authored several articles and books defending his thinking, which he described yesterday as "utilitarian" and a "cost-benefit" approach to governance.

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, has spoken widely on the importance of understanding that certain human rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away by governments, even during wartime. In a brief interview before the forum, Cox said that while he had no personal animosity toward Yoo, the ideas that he espouses are "dangerous" and a "propaganda gift to people would like to kill Americans."

The Bush administration's approach to the issue of torture is unique, Cox said, because it attempted to "create a theory that would justify these acts."

A police detective escorted Yoo to the Salmon Hall, where a handful of protestors with more moxie than manpower stood outside Salomon Hall holding banners. One read: "People v. John Yoo War Criminal."

The 450-seat hall filled up as three uniformed police officers surveyed the crowd. One of the protestors took a seat near the front.

Each guest speaker was given 25 minutes to make their cases, which they did with academic decorum, before the discussion was opened to audience questions.

One of the defining issues that split the two speakers was that of security. Yoo argued that relinquishing some rights was among the "tough tradeoffs" required for maintaining security. "You have to make a choice," he said, "between whether you want more liberty or more security."

The question, Yoo said, is whether the aftermath of 9/11 (think: Guantanamo Bay) was worth the tradeoff, given there have been no further terrorist attacks. "The question should be: Did it come at too high a price?" Yoo's answer: No.

Cox, of Amnesty International, said, "In the long run. the violation of human rights undermines, rather than protects, security."

Cox outlined the 1948 drafting at the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the recognition that human rights "cannot be taken away by governments."

Despite all the progress since then, he said, "the last decade has been one of the most damaging in the history of human rights."

Nathan Florence, a 27-year-old cook in Middletown who had been videotaping the speeches, jumped up when the question-and-answer period began. His question, following one about President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, was like the blare of a megaphone. He aimed it at Yoo.

Florence blurted out his best recollection of a question he said he'd heard directed at Yoo during a recent hearing. He asked whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" could include "a child's testicles being crushed in front of its parents."

"...Sir, I've read your memos and they're not the work of genius. They're the work of a fevered ego!"

The student moderator broke in: "You have a question?"

Yoo, his voice calm, said that he had not answered that question before because he objected to hypothetical questions. "It all depends on what the real facts are," he said.

Florence returned to his seat and resumed his videotaping. He told a reporter that he was a member of the "independent media group" wearechange.org. He said he's been reading about Yoo for years, and waiting for the chance to confront him in a forum such as this one. He said he planned to post his video on YouTube.


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