By late last year, the world already knew a great deal about John Yoo, the Philadelphia native and conservative legal scholar whose tenure in the Bush administration as a top Justice Department lawyer lies at the root of the period of greatest peril to the U.S. Constitution in modern memory. It was widely known in 2008, for example, that Yoo had argued for presidential powers far beyond anything either real or implied in the Constitution -- that the commander-in-chief could trample the powers of Congress or a free press in an endless undeclared war, or that the 4th Amendment barring unreasonable search and seizure didn't apply in fighting what Yoo called domestic terrorism.
Most famously, Yoo was known as the author of the infamous "torture memos" that in 2002 and 2003 gave the Bush and Cheney the legal cover to violate the human rights of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, based on the now mostly ridiculed claim that international and U.S. laws against such torture practices did not apply. Working closely with Dick Cheney, Cheney's staff and others, Yoo set into motion the brutal actions that left a deep, indelible stain on the American soul.
Yet none of that was enough to prevent my colleagues upstairs at the Philadelphia Inquirer -- with none of the fanfare that might normally accompany such a move -- to sign a contract with Yoo in late 2008 to give him a regular monthly column. The Inquirer thus handed Yoo a loud megaphone on what was once a hallowed piece of real estate in American journalism -- to write on the very subjects that have now led Justice Department investigators to reportedly recommend disbarment proceedings against Yoo and has led international prosecutors as well as millions of politically engaged Americans to consider the Episcopal Academy graduate worthy of charging with war crimes.
It was Yoo's immoral guidance that aided the United States in sanctioning the torture practice known as waterboarding -- used in the Spanish Inquisition, by despots such as Pol Pot and by Chinese Communists in the Korean War to obtain false confessions from Americans -- as well as slamming detainees into walls, part of a harsh interrogation regime that has been linked to the deaths of at least a dozen U.S, detainees and possibly more.
But apparently the Inquirer didn't get the memo on Yoo.
Because Yoo's working arrangement with the Inquirer was never formally announced, even people who work here at 400 North Broad Street, the home of the Daily News and Inquirer,weren't immediately aware (myself included)that Yoo was now a regular columnist, joining an increasingly rightward-tilting lineup that also includes the likes ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (at $1,750 a pop), Michael Smerconish, a moderate Republican who is also a forceful advocate for torture, Kevin Ferris and others. Indeed, the buzz about Yoo only started growing louder this weekend, after the man who put his John Hancock on the practice of waterboarding now attacked President Barack Obama for seeking "empathy" in a Supreme Court justice (at least Yoo is consistent in his lack of empathy).
From what I've been able to see, Sunday's column was the first where Yoo was bylined as "Inquirer columnist," although curiously his current one-line bio makes no reference to the one thing that made him famous, his work for the Bush administration. Seeking more information about all of this, I emailed the Inquirer's editorial page editor, Harold Jackson, this afternoon. What exactly was Yoo's arrangement with the Inquirer, how much is he paid, and how much weight -- if any -- did the editors give to the notion they were awarding a regular column who's been accused of unethical lawyering by some, and war crimes by others? How does Yoo's hiring jibe with the Inquirer's editorial stance against the interrogation practices of the Bush administration?
Here is editorial page editor Jackson's written response, in full:
John Yoo has written freelance commentaries for The Inquirer since 2005, however he entered into a contract to write a monthly column in late 2008. I won't discuss the compensation of anyone who writes for us. Of course, we know more about Mr. Yoo's actions in the Justice Department now than we did at the time we contracted him. But we did not blindly enter into our agreement. He's a Philadelphian, and very knowledgeable about the legal subjects he discusses in his commentaries. Our readers have been able to get directly from Mr. Yoo his thoughts on a number of subjects concerning law and the courts, including measures taken by the White House post-9/11. That has promoted further discourse, which is the objective of newspaper commentary.
No personal disrespect toward Harold Jackson (a well-regarded colleague with whom I've crossed career paths in two far-flung cities, with many mutual friends) but I could not disagree more. None of this is a good enough justification for awarding a column to America's top defender of such a serious human rights violation as torture -- certainly not the fact that he's now a celebrated Philadelphian (so is disgraced state Sen. Vince Fumo, who could be handed a political column based on this kind of rationale). Sure, his warped viewpoint that the president of our once-proud democracy can assume virtually dictatorial powers is controversial enough to "promote further discourse" (so did George Will's recent blatantly misleading column on climate change) but that alone hardly makes something worth publishing.
But while promoting public discourse is a goal of newspaper commentary, it should not be the main objective. The higher calling for an American newspaper should be promoting and maintaining our sometimes fragile democracy, the very thing that Yoo and his band of torture advocates very nearly shredded in a few short years. Quite simply, by handing Yoo a regularly scheduled platform for his viewpoint, the Inquirer is telling its readers that Yoo's ideas -- especially that torture is not a crime against the very essence of America -- are acceptable.
This is exactly the kind of "on one hand, on the other hand" cowardly practice that has become a cancer destroying the moral DNA of America's newsrooms. "On one hand, torture is not only immoral but a violation of international and even U.S. law, but on the other hand, check out our 'provocative' new columnist, John Yoo, who can't travel to Europe because he might be arrested for war crimes!" This is wrong -- horribly so. For more than five years, American newsrooms have helped to normalize the inhumane practice of torture, giving into the government's Orwellian terms like "enhanced interrogation" and failing to call for accountability of those responsible for these crimes, including -- but not stopping at -- John Yoo. For a much-honored newspaper like the Inquirer to pay someone like Yoo to write a regular column is surely the exclamation point on a dark period in which most of my profession flunked its greatest moral test.
But it's not too late to change things. Last Sunday's column by Yoo should also be his last, period. While Yoo is a free man who is thus free to utter his detestable viewpoints on any public street corner, the Inquirer has no obligation to so loudly promote these ideas that are so far outside of the mainstream. People should write the Inquirer -- email@example.com -- or call the newspaper and tell them that torture advocates are not the kind of human beings who belong regularly on a newspaper editorial page, officially sanctioned. Journalists here in Philadelphia or elsewhere who wish to strategize on where to take this next should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As an American citizens, I am still reeling from the knowledge that our government tortured people in my name. As a journalist, the fact that my byline and John Yoo's are now rolling off the same printing press is adding insult to injury.
(Photo at top by Joshua Sudock, Orange County Register.)