What Bush Wants to Hear

Few lawyers have had more influence on President Bush’s legal policies in the “war on terror” than John Yoo. This is a remarkable feat, because Yoo was not a cabinet official, not a White House lawyer, and not even a senior officer within the Justice Department. He was merely a mid-level attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel with little supervisory authority and no power to enforce laws. Yet by all accounts, Yoo had a hand in virtually every major legal decision involving the US response to the attacks of September 11, and at every point, so far as we know, his advice was virtually always the same—the president can do whatever the president wants.

John Yoo
John Yoo; drawing by David Levine

Yoo’s most famous piece of advice was in an August 2002 memorandum stating that the president cannot constitutionally be barred from ordering torture in wartime—even though the United States has signed and ratified a treaty absolutely forbidding torture under all circumstances, and even though Congress has passed a law pursuant to that treaty, which without any exceptions prohibits torture. Yoo reasoned that because the Constitution makes the president the “Commander-in-Chief,” no law can restrict the actions he may take in pursuit of war. On this reasoning, the president would be entitled by the Constitution to resort to genocide if he wished.

Yoo is now back in private life, having returned to the law faculty at the University of California at Berkeley. Unlike some other former members of the administration, he seems to have few if any second thoughts about what he did, and has continued to aggressively defend his views. His book The Powers of War and Peace: The Constitution and Foreign Affairs After 9/11 shows why Yoo was so influential in the Bush administration. It presents exactly the arguments that the president would have wanted to hear. Yoo contends that the president has unilateral authority to initiate wars without congressional approval, and to interpret, terminate, and violate international treaties at will. Indeed, ratified treaties, Yoo believes, cannot be enforced by courts unless Congress enacts additional legislation to implement them. According to this view, Congress’s foreign affairs authority is largely limited to enacting domestic legislation and appropriating money. In other words, when it comes to foreign affairs, the president exercises unilateral authority largely unchecked by law—constitutional or international.

Yoo is by no means the first to advance such positions. Many conservatives favor a strong executive, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, and they are generally skeptical about international law. What Yoo offers that is new is an attempt to reconcile these modern-day conservative preferences with an influential conservative theory of constitutional interpretation: the “originalist” approach, which claims that the Constitution must be interpreted according to the specific understandings held by the framers, the ratifiers, and the public when the Constitution and its amendments were drafted.1

The problem for originalists who believe in a strong…


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