The Torture Professor 

Why UC Berkeley should fire John Yoo, the legal scholar whose work led to Abu Ghraib and secret spying on Americans.

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Suskind also wrote that even though Zubaydah suffers from "multiple personalities," his interrogators took his "confessions" as gospel. Under duress, Zubaydah told make-believe stories of al Qaeda targeting shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, nuclear power plants, water systems, and apartment buildings, Suskind reported. Government agents then scrambled in response. "Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target," Suskind wrote. "The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

If Yoo's first torture memo was a golden shield for the CIA, the second one provided similar cover for the Pentagon. According to a 2006 story in The New Yorker by investigative reporter Jane Mayer, harsh interrogation methods had migrated in the fall of 2002 from the CIA to the Defense Department-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, military lawyers there strongly objected, believing the new techniques were illegal and amounted to torture. To settle the disagreement, top Pentagon officials asked Yoo for a memo of their own. He complied in March 2003.

Yoo has publically maintained that this second memo was never meant for Abu Ghraib, the notorious US prison in Iraq. But reporting by Mayer and legal blogger Martin Lederman, a Georgetown University law professor and former Office of Legal Counsel attorney in the both the Clinton and Bush administrations, reveals that this is precisely what happened. The Pentagon sent the very same officer who ran Guantanamo Bay in late 2002 and early 2003 to Iraq a few months later.

That commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller, had been briefed on Yoo's memo and given orders to "GTMoize" interrogation techniques there, Lederman noted on the legal blog Balkinization. Sure enough, the worst Iraqi prisoner abuse took place at Abu Ghraib from the spring of 2003 to December of that year when Goldsmith rescinded the second memo and told Pentagon officials they should no longer rely on it. Yoo's second memo, Lederman wrote, "is, in effect, the blueprint that led to Abu Ghraib."

Ironically, Goldsmith would have never had the authority to withdraw the torture memos had it not been for Yoo. In early 2003, the White House nominated Yoo's boss, Jay Bybee, then the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, to be a federal appellate judge in the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco. The White House reasoned that Bybee, another extremely conservative lawyer who had co-signed Yoo's first torture memo but is not believed to have contributed significantly to it, would be a perfect fit to counterbalance the traditionally liberal appellate court.

Once Bybee got his judgeship, the White House wanted Yoo to take over the office, according to Goldsmith. But Attorney General John Ashcroft refused. Goldsmith said Ashcroft resented Yoo because of his tight relationship with the White House, especially with Gonzales and Addington. So with Yoo out of the running, the Berkeley law professor recommended for the job his good friend and fellow staunch conservative Goldsmith.

About six weeks after taking over the office, Goldsmith reviewed the torture memos and was astonished at what Yoo had done. The opinions reflected "bad judgment," were "poorly reasoned," and were completed with an "unusual lack of care," he wrote in his book. In what appears to have been an unprecedented move, he then concluded he would have to rescind the memos. He said that he knew of no other instance in which an Office of Legal Counsel legal opinion had been rescinded by a succeeding lawyer within the same administration. To make his decision stick, he decided to quit his job on the day he rescinded the memos, thus forcing the White House to approve their withdrawal or risk turning his resignation into a huge news story.

By then, however, the Yoo memos had already taken their toll. Not only was Abu Ghraib an international embarrassment that harmed the United States' reputation around the world, it risked the lives of captured US soldiers for years to come. But that was only the beginning. Yoo's memos also likely led to the deaths of prisoners. Since he completed the first torture memo in August 2002, nearly one hundred detainees have died while in US custody, according to a 2006 report by the liberal watchdog group Human Rights First. The group also reported that its research found that during that time at least eight people "were tortured to death."


When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in the spring of 2004, with its sickening photos of men piled naked atop each other or forced to wear Ku Klux Klan-style hoods, John Yoo was safely back at Berkeley, enjoying life in the East Bay. He had returned with little fanfare; at the time, his torture memos were still secret. However, more than four years later, much is now known about Yoo's pivotal role in enabling torture and mistreating prisoners. Yet somehow he continues to escape condemnation on the supposedly liberal campus.

There has been no faculty or student uprising, no sense of outrage. In fact, the opposite is the case. Law students actually appear to admire him. According to a blogger on the campus web site, Nuts & Boalts, Yoo's students this semester even gave him a round of applause during his last day of class.

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