January 14, 2010

Amid Protest, Former Bush Administration Official Speaks at Cornell Club

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This story was originally published Jan. 15, 2010.

NEW YORK — About half a dozen protesters greeted John Yoo, University of California Berkeley law professor and former deputy assistant attorney general, outside the Cornell Club on Tuesday night, where he spoke as part of a scheduled stop on a tour promoting his new book Crisis and Command.

The protesters waved signs that read, “Torture is a War Crime! Prosecute!” and “John Yoo: War Criminal” and welcomed opportunities to speak to pedestrians about the issue as they passed by.

The controversy stems from several memoranda authored and co-authored by Yoo during his time at the Department of Justice from 2001 to 2003 that provided legal justification for several of the post-9/11 practices of the administration of President George W. Bush. These included memos in support of harsh interrogation tactics for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, such as water boarding and domestic surveillance. According to Debra Sweet, protest organizer and director of the organization The World Can’t Wait, these practices violated international treaties and laws and ignored past American legal precedents.

“We have three demands,” Sweet asserted. “One: that he should be prosecuted for war crimes; two: that he should be disbarred from the bar; and we think that he should be fired from Berkeley law school.”

Several other protestors sat through Yoo’s talk — sponsored by the Federalist Society — and disrupted the speech at various times, standing and yelling “You’re a war criminal!” and “You should be ashamed of yourself!” before being escorted out by private security. During the question and answer session one woman repeatedly asked the audience, “why hasn’t John Yoo been prosecuted?” while another stormed out waving a pair of handcuffs.

“It’s all about education, when people talk about an issue, it’s all about what facts, we’re trying to spread the facts,” Nancy Ann Siracusa, another protester, stated. “We believe that when you find out what John Yoo did, that he advocated torture, you’ll realize that he should be held accountable.”

Event organizers had considered making the talk closed to the public when they learned from the NYPD’s intelligence unit that several protesters were planning on demonstrating at the speech. However, they ultimately decided to keep it open with added security.

“In the spirit of civil, honest and open debate and discourse, we decided to make it a public event,” the event’s organizer, Vincent J. Vitzkowsky law ’80, said.

Yoo, for his part, appeared relatively unfazed by the protestors and, though he spent much of his talk detailing his new book, did take time to respond to his critics and defend the Bush administration’s post-9/11 practices.

“We were attacked by a non-state, by a terrorist organization — something which had never happened before in our nation’s history,” Yoo said. “Within less than a year when everybody thought there were going to be repeated attacks, we captured Al-Qaeda’s number three, four and five, but they were trained, and would not respond to normal interrogation techniques.”

Yoo explained that in times of war, it is absolutely necessary for the executive branch to take strong action in protecting the country — even if those actions are at odds with the legislative and judicial branches.

“Congress left to its own vices will take weeks if not months to decide on issues,” Yoo said. “So if there’s any branch that should respond immediately [to crises] it should be the executive.”

Ultimately, he felt that history would remember the Bush administration — which, as protesters reminded the audience, has been the subject of sharp criticism — differently than most do today.

“Twenty five years from now, people will look back and need to decide whether the circumstances were appropriate to warrant these actions,” Yoo said.

In spite of the protesters, the crowd was mostly favorable towards Yoo and several expressed their admiration for him.

“You are a patriot,” one audience member pronounced to a round of applause.

“You are an intellectual and a legal scholar,” another said.

The organization The World Can’t Wait plans to protest every stop along Yoo’s book tour and will continue to maintain it’s website firejohnyoo.org.

Clarification Appended

The fact that John Yoo’s lecture was sponsored by the Federalist Society was added to this article.

Original Author: Ben Gitlin