The hypocrisy of Berkeley professor John Yoo

The Discomfort Zone

Miller Center/Creative Commons

News broke last week that in response to the United States’ ban on 18 Russian officials from entering the country, the Russian government announced a ban on 18 Americans from entering Russia.

The grounds?

The Russian government reportedly stated that these Americans were responsible for the “legalization of torture” during the Bush years, and chief among the bureaucratic offenders is Berkeley law professor John Yoo.

Independent of the tit-for-tat quality of the Russians’ announcement, there is good reason to express concern over Professor Yoo’s role in expanding the role of torture after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And from the perspective of Berkeley students, it is tough to consider he is allowed to draw salary from the University of California given his integral role in shaping American policy around indefinite detention and “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture), and the circumstances under which he adopted such views.

While I firmly believe John Yoo has the right to speak his mind and advance the ideas in which he believes (as he is wont to do under our campus’ firm principles protecting academic freedom), he should not dishonestly vacillate between positions as we elect different presidents into office.

And funnily enough, it’s a Berkeley professor who makes this case best.

In February 2009, campus economics professor Brad DeLong called for John Yoo to be fired. In a blog update illustratively titled “I Never Thought I Would … Be The Kind of Crank Who Wrote Letters to the Chancellor Trying to Get My Colleagues Fired,’ Delong posts a copy of a letter he wrote to UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau demanding the dismissal of Professor Yoo.

In the letter, he paraphrases rather accurately how Professor Yoo advocated in a 2003 document referred to as the “Torture Memo” that “President Bush’s commander-in-chief power is without limit save for impeachment itself” and that it “is unlawful for any member of the United States armed forces to disobey a presidential order to torture prisoners.”

However, it was only three years earlier in essay entitled “The Imperial Presidency Abroad” that Professor Yoo asserted “President Clinton’s commander-in-chief power is crabbed and restricted.” And that Clinton was “accelerat[ing] disturbing trends in foreign policy that undermine democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law.”

If Professor Yoo believed that “democratic accountability” was necessary in 2000, what made him completely flip to arguing that the commander-in-chief’s power was “without limit?” Having never substantively addressed this reversal, one must conclude (as Professor DeLong did) that if Professor Yoo “could write ‘The Imperial President Abroad’ in 2000 and the “Torture Memo” in 2003 … he does not believe what he writes–at least not for any meaning of believe’ that any of us would recognize.”

And it is this damning cynicism pervading Professor Yoo’s time both working in government and at Berkeley that eats away at the integrity of whatever academic endeavor he pursues.

In journalism, The Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin is guilty of the same sin. Writing shortly before Election Day extremely bullish articles on Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the presidency, she lamented after his loss that “the [Romney] communications team was the worst of any presidential campaign I have ever seen … It was hostile, indifferent and unhelpful to media.”

It should be noted that Ben Smith observed in October of 2011 that she scored “a rare interview with the candidate [Romney] after a recent foreign affairs speech,” whose staff she described as “‘the most professional of the presidential campaign staffs, because they are the most experienced.’” One could reasonably suggest that she changed her mind over the course of the next year, but I invite the reader to read any number of salivatory posts discussing the Romney campaign that she wrote up until she trashed him after Election Day.

Rubin’s rank dishonesty is right up there with Professor Yoo–the professions of journalism and academia respectively entail a certain of amount of respect and protection. But both that honor and shielding end up severely tested should the occupants of these jobs fail the obligations of sincere thought demanded.

Russia was politically posturing when it banned Professor Yoo from crossing its borders. And as inscrutable as Professor Yoo’s motives were in changing his opinion, the fact he does not provide sufficient justification for neither his amended thoughts or the political influence they earned him is reason alone to release him from Berkeley’s employ.

The university is a special place; in this space we are able to bring new ideas to the table and debate them fairly. But part of the contract upon entering here is that one argues her ideas with some measure of conviction. Professor Yoo, in his shameful and calculated “transformation,” has violated that contract.

Make no mistake I – unlike Professor DeLong – am not questioning Professor Yoo’s right to teach here. Nonetheless, it seems clear that censuring him and setting a precedent of serious consequences for this sort of un-academic behavior is called for.

At the very least, it would be the first step in fully grasping his deeply problematic actions and starting a campus conversation about responsible academic and intellectual behavior in a democratic society.

Image source: Miller_Center via Creative Commons.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @noahkulwin.