Ex-Justice Dept. Official

Finds a Hot Seat at UCI

John Yoo, whose memos have been called torture justification, is the target in a fiery panel debate.

Los Angeles Times,  February 8, 2005

A former Justice Department attorney who wrote memos that critics say condoned torture of terrorism suspects stood by his work Monday during a panel discussion at UC Irvine, saying the fight against Al Qaeda was a different kind of war, one not covered by the Geneva Convention.

John Yoo, who served as deputy assistant attorney general from 2001 to 2003, spoke on campus as part of the Chancellor's Distinguished Fellows Series. But after faculty and student protests, including an online petition signed by nearly 500 people, Yoo agreed to also take part in the panel discussion during the afternoon.

The petition supported his right to speak at the university, but not as a distinguished fellow.

In a letter to the student newspaper, UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone defended his choice of Yoo. Cicerone wrote that "the series is designed to bring to our campus speakers who have had a role in shaping our world and determining its future, however that influence may be judged."

During the afternoon debate, Yoo was outnumbered 3 to 1 on the panel, and he offered few responses to the panelists' sharp attacks.

He said that although Al Qaeda was not a country, it was powerful enough to inflict the damage of a nation state and had no compunction about killing civilians.

"How can you wage a war offensively against that kind of enemy?" he said. "Al Qaeda operates by violating the notions of the laws of war."

About 180 people listened to Yoo debate two UCI associate professors and an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.

Before the debate began, 10 to 15 people held signs and chanted, "John Yoo, you can't hide, we charge you with genocide."

At one point, a man in the front row interrupted Yoo, shouting, "I can't stand listening to you! … You're just a torturer; you're just a fascist." Then he walked out.

Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, mostly ignored the protesters, looking down, just as he did through most of the 1 1/2 -hour debate.

Mark LeVine, a UCI associate professor of history, took issue with Yoo's argument that this was a different type of war, arguing that civilians had been targeted before. He cited the German bombing of London in World War II and the Allied bombing of Dresden.

The memos, LeVine said, led directly to the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, including the use of water-boarding, in which victims are strapped to a board and shoved underwater until they feel like they will drown.

"Nazi war criminals were sent to the gallows for this," said LeVine, who has traveled to Iraq and interviewed Abu Ghraib prisoners.

Even assuming that Yoo is correct in saying the Geneva Convention doesn't apply, LeVine said, Americans should not engage in inhumane treatment.

The other panelists also criticized Yoo.

Cecelia Lynch, an associate professor of political science, called Yoo's view of the world "retrograde, myopic and simplistic."

Stephen Rhode, former president of the ACLU of Southern California, compared Yoo's characterization of the Geneva Convention to a memo Hitler wrote governing the German conduct on the Eastern Front. Yoo's memos were "an obvious attempt to provide legal cover for war crimes…. You too, professor Yoo, may be indicted as a war criminal," Rhode said.

After nearly an hour of nonstop criticism, Yoo said he didn't have time to answer all the charges and what he called misstatements.

He reiterated his position: "My argument is that the Geneva Convention does not cover the conflict with Al Qaeda."

After the debate, Yoo criticized the panelists by saying they compared the war on terrorism to Nazi methods. "It's a cheap rhetorical trick," he said.

He has taken part in a number of panel discussions over the memos but said he never felt as outnumbered as at UCI.

"I never had a panel like this," he said. "It seemed a catch-all for all of the grievances against Bush and the war on terrorism."