With his even tones and calm demeanor 37-year-old constitutional scholar John Yoo is not the first person you’d expect to find at the heart of an international fight over terrorism, torture, and the American way.

John Yoo doesn’t come across like a war criminal, though that’s one of the charges leveled against the smooth young law professor from the University of California at Berkeley’s storied Boalt Hall.

With his even tones and calm demeanor, his natty suits, and warm charm, the 37-year-old constitutional scholar seems the embodiment of ”reasonable.” He’s not the first person you’d expect to find at the heart of an international fight over terrorism, torture, and the American way.

But while working for the Department of Justice after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Yoo helped write a series of legal memos redefining torture and advising President Bush that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, demanded from the Senate floor last month that Yoo and other civilian officials be held accountable for what he said was their part in what he called the ”torture scandal” over treatment of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Scott Horton, president of the International League for Human Rights, called last month for Yoo and others to be investigated as war criminals for their part in drafting the memos.

And in an analysis to be published in the Columbia Law Review this fall, Jeremy Waldron, an author and scholar, and Yoo’s former colleague at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said that the ”defense of torture” by Yoo and other prominent lawyers had caused ”dishonor for our profession.”

A year after the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light, nearly a year after the torture memos were leaked, debate isn’t abating over how the US government should treat its prisoners.

”If you read the history of philosophy from the Greeks to the present day, the question of when should we be willing to do something terrible in pursuit of some social good is always posed,” said Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago.

But as Yoo defended the memos, he said he is surprised that ”the issue has staying power.”

The memos about the Geneva Conventions and torture are probably the two most disputed documents Yoo worked on with other lawyers when he was a deputy assistant attorney general with the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003. The former bears Yoo’s name; the latter, that of then-Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, who now sits on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Scroll to Top