The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of that city's two major daily newspapers, is in the news itself these days after hiring controversial former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo as a monthly columnist.
Letters and e-mails critical of the Inquirer are pouring in. "How in the world could John Yoo's legal analysis of anything be informative?" wrote Lisa Ernst of Philadelphia. "What next? An investment advice column by Bernie Madoff?" Will Bunch of the rival Philadelphia Daily News wrote, "It's not about muzzling John Yoo from expressing his far-out-of-the-mainstream opinion in the many venues that are available to him, but whether a major American newspaper should give Yoo, his actions, and the notion of torture advocacy its implied endorsement by handing him a megaphone."
Yoo served from 2001 to 2003 as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Justice Department, where he worked under Jay Bybee. There, Yoo authored or co-authored "torture memos," the legal advice given to the Bush White House authorizing harsh interrogation practices. Yoo defined torture in one memo: "The victim must experience intense pain or suffering of the kind that is equivalent to the pain that would be associated with serious physical injury, so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result."
Judge Baltasar Garzon of the Spanish National Court is moving ahead with an investigation of "The Bush Six," which includes Yoo and Bybee, as well as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; William J. Haynes II, then general counsel to the Department of Defense; Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy; and David Addington, the chief of staff under former Vice President Dick Cheney. These six could possibly face criminal charges in Spain for enabling torture at Guantanamo and elsewhere. They might think twice before traveling abroad to Spain or other European nations. Yoo, Bybee and another Bush Justice Department attorney, Steven G. Bradbury, face an investigation into their conduct by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility. The Justice Department could forward the report to state bar associations, where the attorneys could be disciplined, possibly disbarred. Bybee, now a federal judge, could be impeached.
The disbarment strategy has been embraced by grass-roots activists as well. The group DisbarTortureLawyers.com said, "On Monday, May 18, 2009, a broad coalition of organizations dedicated to accountable government, and representing over one million members, filed disciplinary complaints with state bar licensing boards against ... twelve attorneys for advocating the torture of detainees during the Bush Administration."
Disbarment would certainly be a problem for many of these people, perhaps costing them their jobs. But the detention and interrogation practices that gained their official sanction, from the highest level of the executive branch, have had much more serious and far-reaching consequences for hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the globe.
John Sifton is a human-rights investigator who recently wrote a piece titled "The Bush Administration Homicides." He concludes that "an estimated 100 detainees have died during interrogations, some who were clearly tortured to death." He told me: "These aggressive techniques were not just limited to the high-value detainee program in the CIA. They spread to the military with disastrous results. They led to the deaths of human beings ... when there's a dead body involved, you can't just have a debate about policy differences and looking forward or looking backward."
Bunch told me: "Philadelphia is a city of 4 million people. John Yoo grew up here, but he doesn't even live here now. And to think this is a voice that's reflective of the community, frankly, [is] an insult to true conservatives that the best voice they can get on the editorial page is somebody who's famous for being a torture advocate."
I was in Philadelphia this past weekend and got to hear Grammy Award-winning soul singer John Legend give the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. He said in his speech: "As a nation and as a world, we need more truth. Let me repeat that. We need more truth. ... Too often, in business and in government, people are rewarded for having the answer that the person they report to wants them to have: ‘Yes, sir. We can provide mortgages to people who have no down payment and can't afford the monthly payments.' ... ‘Yes, ma'am. I can write a legal brief to justify torture.' " The students listened with rapt attention.
There are many Philadelphians who can write and inspire debate that leads people to action. John Yoo has done enough harm.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.