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John Yoo Says His Memos ‘Were Not for Public Consumption’

Posted Mar 4, 2009 8:29 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The author of several controversial Justice Department memos that endorsed expansive presidential powers and harsh interrogation techniques after the Sept. 11 attacks says he is worried about the impact of their release.

John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is on leave to work as a visiting law professor at Chapman University. He spoke to the Orange County Register about a wide range of topics, ranging from the ethnic food in Los Angeles (it’s “way better”) to the negative reaction to his views (it’s not surprising at Berkeley, “sort of a magnet for hippies, protesters and left-wing activists.”)

The Justice Department released nine of the post-Sept. 11 memos yesterday. One of them, written by Yoo, says government troops could storm buildings housing terrorists, and protections guaranteeing free speech and warrantless searches could be suspended in wartime.

“These memos I wrote were not for public consumption,” Yoo told the newspaper. “They lack a certain polish. I think [it] would have been better to explain government policy rather than try to give unvarnished, straight-talk legal advice. I certainly would have done that differently, but I don't think I would have made the basic decisions differently.”

Yoo said it is the job of a lawyer to give a straight answer to the client, and he worries that kind of legal advice could be jeopardized:

“One thing I sometimes worry about is that lawyers in the future in the government are going to start worrying about, ‘What are people going to think of me?’ ” Yoo told the Register. “Your client the president, or your client the justice on the Supreme Court, or your client this senator, needs to know what's legal and not legal. And sometimes, what's legal and not legal is not the same thing as what you can do or what you should do.”

Yoo says he wishes the legality of his memos weren’t under the microscope, “but I understand why they are. It is something one would expect. You have to make these kinds of decisions in an unprecedented kind of war with legal questions we've never had to think about before. We didn't seek out those questions. 9/11 kind of thrust them on us. No matter what you do, there's going to be a lot of people who are upset with your decision.”

Yoo says he’s not worried about his legacy, since final judgments won’t be made for years or even decades—after he’s had time to explain himself. And he’s not eager to go back into government service. “If I never serve in government again, that would be fine with me,” he said. “I'm happy with my job as a professor.”

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