Does John Yoo Advocate Terrorism?

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For too long I’ve been focused on the ruthlessness of President Obama’s drone war. Indeed, he targets individuals he can’t even identify and, out of the approximately 4,000 people killed, less than 2 percent have been senior al-Qaeda members. The administration assumes that every military-age male killed in a strike zone is an enemy combatant, unless posthumously proved innocent. The unprecedented application of this sweeping, unaccountable robot war conducted almost entirely in secret does have its problems.

But in my fixation on Obama’s murderous policies, I’ve forgotten how much more extreme the other end of the political spectrum can be.

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf points to a recent National Review piece by John Yoo, George W. Bush’s legal adviser who gave the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang the green light on torturing people. Yoo is unsatisfied because Obama’s approach to the drone war – get this – is overly concerned with avoiding civilian casualties.

Now, the U.S. will only use drone strikes against terrorists who “pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” where there is a “near certainty” that the target is present, and there is a “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed.”

The president risks rendering impossible the only element of his counterterrorism strategy that has bred success. An obvious problem is that there is almost never a “near certainty” that a target is the person we think he is and that he is located where we think. President Obama either is imposing a far too strict level of proof on our military and intelligence officers or the standards will be rarely followed. But worse, if the U.S. publicly announces that it will not attack terrorists if civilian casualties will result, terrorists will always meet and travel in entourages of innocent family members and others — a tactic adopted by potential targets of Israeli targeted killings in the West Bank. Neither of these standards — near certainty of the identity of the target or of zero civilian casualties — applies to wartime operations. President Obama is placing impossible conditions on the use of force for what can only be assumed to be ideological reasons.

Friedersdorf notes sarcastically, “How shameful that policy-making is so ideological these days. You can’t even shoot Hellfire missiles at foreigners whose identities you’re not quite sure about anymore, just because they might be innocent.”

Yoo actually misrepresents the Obama administration’s standards for drone strikes. As outlined in a leaked Justice Department memo, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” That standard contradicts the legal prerequisite for the use of force by states, that it aim to obstruct an actually imminent attack.

But Yoo’s flippant attitude toward killing civilians is noteworthy in two ways. First – the obvious – is that it reveals a truly sick disregard for the killing of innocent human beings. They can be ripped to shreds, Yoo thinks, if they are near a so-called terrorist.

The second reason it is noteworthy is that Yoo argues trying to avoid killing civilians who are in the vicinity of enemy combatants doesn’t apply “to wartime operations.” Leave aside the legal reasoning for a moment and consider if Yoo would support the same standard in reverse. By his own logic, given that the United States and “the terrorists” are at war, it is also acceptable – indeed, it is a moral obligation – for al-Qaeda to go ahead and bomb the Pentagon City metro stop in Washington, DC because there are a lot of active duty U.S. soldiers there. The fact that those soldiers are hiding among civilians shouldn’t matter to al-Qaeda operatives, according to Yoo’s logic. It’s also fine to bomb a U.S. diplomatic building, granted there are U.S. soldiers there too. How about an attack on the U.S. Capitol, even if there is a tour guide and 50 civilian visitors there as well?

Or does Yoo mean to suggest that standards inherent in “wartime operations,” should only apply to U.S. actions on them, and not the other way around?

Either way, knowingly targeting civilians because they happen to be in the vicinity of an often unidentified suspect presumed to commit some future harm comes dangerously close to the strategy employed by al-Qaeda.

29 thoughts on “Does John Yoo Advocate Terrorism?”

  1. al-Qaeda would bomb the Pentagon City metro, a US diplomatic building or the US Capitol if they could. It's only because it's difficult (as in insufficiently armed, or too risky) that they don't. It's not because of moral considerations or the laws of war. They're not even a state-actor which has committed to obeying the laws of war.
    Their strategies are based on what they can do given their means. Terrorism is a strategy of the weak.
    Sorry, I don't see the point.

    1. The point is that under Yoo's logic, it is legal for AQ to do so. It is not a crime. It is not a war crime. It's just an act of war. Get it now?

      1. That's not Yoo's logic. As a non-state-actor, AQ is not bound by laws of war signed on by states. It is only states whose sovereign territory AQ operates from that can be held responsible for such actions. Yoo's logic is that since governments AQ operate under are either unwillilng or unable to stop AQ, the US should not respect the laws of war in fighting AQ. Because the alternatives are either to do nothing or to declare war on those goverments.

        1. That's not Yoo's logic, that's his argument — which ignores the full extent of his logic. Since its obvious the US isn't following any form of civilian law, if the US "should not respect the laws of war in fighting AQ" then there is nothing left. Anything deemed "necessary" is therefore "legal" — which is how we became a country that tortured people "legally." Such is the hallmark of a lawless state. Such is the basis for perhaps every evil committed by a government in the modern era, if not the history of man.

          "Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end, until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge could satiate their insatiable appetites. Such must be the consequences of losing, in the splendour of these triumphs of the rights of men, all natural sense of wrong and right." — Edmund Burke

        2. And, to get back to the original point, if the we can justify such actions by our own government, legal precedent is set for AQ to act in the same way. Unless of course you don't believe in the rule of equal treatment under the law but instead in "might makes right." Again, that's wouldn't be anything new in the human condition.

  2. @RonF

    You seem to have missed the entire point of the article.

    The US certainly is “state actor” who clearly violates the laws of war. The drone war is terroristic in nature so you’re saying its weak?

    I could point out what Glaser was trying to convey but I’m afraid I can’t dumb it down any further.

  3. I know the word is terribly overused, but I really do believe John Yoo is a fascist.

    1. Yep, the Nazis had such lawyers to declare their acts of evil "legal", too. So do the Israelis. So did the apartheiders. So did Pinochet and every other Latin American thug. So did the settlers in the American West taking land from native Americans. So did the American slaveowners. Etc, etc.

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  5. he is not even american but an asian who is blood thirsty,he would make the best terrorist as he has not respect for human life this scum

    1. Dude, why did you have to bring race into it?? Has nothing to do with it. He's as "American" as Dick Cheney, Tim McVeigh, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, etc.

  6. Actually Yoo advocates something AQ doesn't even do, preemptive murder. AQ pulled off the attacks on the WTC & Pentagon in RETALIATION, not as a preemptive strike.

  7. This man presenting the illegality of the presence of Neo political fascism presented by the gamg of Bush Dick Cheney and others.. as a attorney and well connected to establishment he was ligitimizing their actions.., for Obama politices is to protect the illegality actions of this man and Bush regimes by not prosecuting the torturer and those who legitimized such act which in terms makes Obama being a participant in a continues policy killing people by the way of drones torturing rest of the people on the ground.., mentally and pschycologicaly devastating the life of innocent people.., which 99.9% of the time of killings the act itself is illegal.

  8. Any time in the future, the thugs that we know as neocons, and those implementing their policies who have waged aggressive war, will, as long as they live, remain at risk of being prosecuted. No war criminal should ever feel safe and beyond the law. At some point there will be an accounting.

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