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What Does John Yoo Believe?

A correspondent sends me to a 2000 article by Yoo, "The Imperial President Abroad", an article that opens:

Aside from getting himself impeached, President Clinton's most signal impact on the Constitution, and the rule of law it embraces, will have been in the area of foreign affairs. As his domestic agenda met with frustration in a Republican Congress, President Clinton exercised the powers of the imperial presidency to the utomost in the area in which those powers are already at their height--in our dealings with foreign nations. Unfortunately, the record of the administration has not been a happy one, in light of its costs to the Constitution and the American legal system. On a series of different international relations matters, such as war, international institutions, and treaties, President Clinton has accelerated disturbing trends in foreign policy that undermine democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law...

That's a hell of an opening paragraph from someone who was, less than three years later, to say that the president has the power to order the torture and maiming of prisoners no matter what laws congress may have passed or treaties the United States has signed.

What does Yoo mean by saying that Clinton has "undermine[d] democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law? He turns out to mean:

  • "The Clinton administration's use of the military in several long-term interventions has rendered the War Powers Resolution a dead letter.... [Its failure to obtain] affirmative congressional authorization for its conduct... is still open to constitutional question..."
  • "The administration has used troops... not to achieve total victory or to contain the spread of Soviet influence but in order to achieve more limited goals... whose long-term benefits for American security are unclear..."
  • "In Kosovo... American troops... serve[d] under... non-American... commanders, such as British General Michael Jackson.... [This] threatens that basic principle of government accountability. International or foreign officials have no obligation to pursue American policy, nor do they take an oath to uphold the Constitution..."

The only way I can find to reconcile these arguments with those of the Torture Memo is to conclude that Yoo truly believes nothing at all.

Can anybody help me here? For the president's commander-in-chief power to extend to the ordering of torturing and maiming against natural law, solemn treaty, and congressional enactment but not to extend to placing U.S. troops under NATO command?...

Does anyone understand how Yoo can pass the Turing test here?


People have been asking "what is Youngstown?" as it more and more becomes the pivot around which lawyers' discussions of the matter of John Yoo's Torture Memo wheel. For example, Boalt Hall graduate "Ugh" writes in:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong: And John Yoo clearly knows about the Youngstown case, he taught it to me in Con Law I in the spring of 2000. Strangely, he somehow omitted his theory of POTUS as King that semester, as if, somehow, he might not have believed it. Huh.

Youngstown is the Korean War steel seizure case: Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer. During the Korean War President Harry S Truman seized the steel mills to keep them running. The Supreme Court said that he could not do that: it limited the power of the President of the United States to seize private property in the absence of either specifically enumerated authority under Article Two of the United States Constitution or statutory authority conferred on him by Congress.

Steel company attorney John W. Davis closed his oral argument before the Supreme Court with Thomas Jefferson: "In questions of power let no more be said of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." The Court voted by six to three to affirm the District Court's injunction barring the President from seizing the steel plants.

The plurality opinion by Justice Hugo Black held that the president had no power to act without congressional or constitutional authorization. Robert H. Jackson's concurrence was less absolutist, and divided the constitutional issues into three cases--(1) presidential action in accord with express or implied authority from Congress, (2) presidential action in the face of congressional silence, and (3) presidential action in defiance of congressional legislation--classified Youngstown as category 3 in which presidential powers were at their "lowest ebb," and so disallowed Truman's action.

Since then the Supreme Court has expressly cited Youngstown and the Jackson classification as authority for its decisions invalidating Nixon's warrantless wiretaps, permitting litigation against thep to proceed in Clinton v. Jones, limiting the power of the president to intervene in state judicial process in Medellín v. Texas, and in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

Youngstown is good law, and bears heavily upon the issues of John Yoo's Torture Memo. Yoo did not fulfill his duty to his clients or to the law in ignoring it in the Torture Memo--at the very least he had a duty to explain his (erroneous) implicit claim that the principles of Youngstown did not apply because the situation here was in some way distinguished from the situation there.

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