Public Comment

Join Protests Against John Yoo This Saturday

By Henry Norr
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 09:51:00 AM

Pleased with the thought that your tax dollars are paying John Yoo, the former Justice Department attorney whose memos provided pseudo-legal cover for the Bush administration’s torture policies, to mold the minds of future lawyers? 

If not, you’ve got an opportunity to say so this Saturday, May 17, when Boalt Hall, the UC Berkeley law school, holds its graduation ceremony. Scores of activists, attorneys, UC students, torture victims, and other concerned people will be outside to demand that Yoo be fired, disbarred, and prosecuted for war crimes. 

Called by Act Against Torture, with support from Code Pink, Global Exchange, World Can’t Wait, and many members of the National Lawyers Guild, the demonstration will have two stages: Between 8 and 9 a.m., we’ll be outside the Greek Theatre (on Gayley Road, opposite the east gate of the campus) as the graduates, faculty, and guests arrive. We’ll be offering them orange ribbons to wear during the ceremony to show their opposition to torture. (Many of the graduating law students will also be wearing colorful ribbons of their own design, to protest not only torture, but also cuts to the state education spending and other outrages.) And some of us, dressed in Guantánamo-style orange jumpsuits and black hoods, will be doing street theater to remind everyone of the horrors Yoo’s work has encouraged. 

After 9 a.m., when the graduation ceremony begins, we’ll take a break from demonstrating—we have no plans and no desire to disrupt the proceedings. But starting around 10:30 a.m. we’ll reconvene at Bancroft Way and College Ave., outside Boalt Hall, where a post-graduation reception is scheduled.  

The point of all this is not to criticize the students or bother their families—it’s not their fault that the university pays a war criminal to teach them. Our goal is to demand that Yoo be held to account for his actions while working for the Bush administration, just as the United States held lawyers who worked at Hitler’s Ministry of Justice accountable for the crimes their legal doctrines facilitated. (Remember Judgement at Nuremberg?) 

Berkeley residents may feel a particular passion about Yoo, because the values embodied in his work are so antithetical to those this community generally purports to stand for, but the campaign against him is national in scope. It has burgeoned since the recent declassification of an 81-page memo he wrote on March 14, 2003, in which he argued that in the interrogation of “enemy combatants,” the President is not bound by laws such as those that prohibit torture, assault, maiming, and stalking. In the same memo Yoo suggested that the arguments of self-defense or necessity could be used as a defense against war-crimes prosecutions for torture—even though the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was ratified by the United States in 1994, states plainly that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” 

In response, the National Lawyers Guild issued a statement calling for Yoo’s firing, disbarment, and prosecution, on the grounds that his “complicity in establishing the policy that led to the torture of prisoners constitutes a war crime under the U.S. War Crimes Act.” The Center for Constitutional Rights promptly endorsed the Guild’s position. This month Guild President Marjorie Cohn presented the case against Yoo in testimony before Rep. John Conyers’ House Judiciary Committee and in a supporting white paper ( 

While some may scoff at the NLG as part of the far-left fringe, more mainstream experts on international law and legal ethics were actually the first to raise the argument that Yoo must be held accountable for the results of his work at the Justice Department.  

• As long as four years ago, when the first of Yoo’s “torture memos” surfaced, Stephen Gillers, a widely quoted authority on legal ethics from New York University, wrote that Yoo and his co-authors were “morally responsible” for the abuses their work led to.  

• Harold Hongju Koh, dean of Yale Law School, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005 that one memo Yoo drafted reflects “a stunning failure of lawyerly craft” and constitutes “a stain upon our law and our national reputation.” 

• Scott Horton, formerly a partner at a prominent New York law firm and chair of the Committee on International Law of the New York City Bar Association, now a lecturer at Columbia and a commentator for Harper’s magazine, has written a series of articles focusing on the question of Yoo’s responsibility, particularly in light of the precedent established at Nuremberg. After Boalt Hall Dean Chris Edley posted an open letter dismissing the case against Yoo, Horton offered an eloquent rebuttal, in which he declared that “what [Yoo] did raises not merely ethics issues, but actual criminal culpability,” and that “a solid basis exists ... under which John Yoo may be charged and brought to trial” for the legal advice he gave. 

• Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, popular blogger, and bestselling author, last month posted a column at entitled “John Yoo’s War Crimes,” in which he asked “If writing memoranda authorizing torture—actions which then directly lead to the systematic commission of torture—doesn’t make one a war criminal in the United States, what does?” 

Saturday’s demonstration offers Berkeley residents an opportunity to say loudly and clearly that we won’t accept impunity for Yoo and his ilk. Come on out—if nothing else, it will give you something to say when your grandchildren ask what you did to stop torture.  


Henry Norr is a member of Act Against Torture.