WASHINGTON — As dean of Yale Law School, Harold Hongju Koh was among the fiercest critics of President George W. Bush's "war on terror," arguing that his administration had trampled the Constitution and tarnished America's international standing by claiming the power to capture "enemy combatants" abroad and hold them without charges at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The next administration must "restore the rule of law in the national security arena," end "excessive government secrecy" and set aside the "claims of unfettered executive power," Koh told a House panel in 2008.
But as the State Department's legal advisor in that new administration, Koh helped set out a legal justification for policies that include a ramped-up use of unmanned drones to attack and kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and Somalia, far from the combat zone in Afghanistan. Thousands have died, and the targets have included U.S. citizens who were seen as inspiring attacks against Americans.
Koh, who is preparing to return to Yale as President Obama's first term comes to an end, has become a symbol of national security policies that many feel are not significantly different than those of Obama's predecessor.
Koh has many defenders who say the administration's anti-terrorism policies would have been harsher if he were not there. But the surprising turn has left some liberal critics puzzled. Did Koh change, or is there some "deeper pathology" that causes "top administration lawyers to rubber stamp power grabs?" Bruce Ackerman, another Yale law professor, wrote in a news blog.
Obama's team unquestionably made progress on some fronts. The harsh treatment and even torture of prisoners was ended, and several dozen detainees were repatriated to other countries. But Congress blocked plans to close the Guantanamo prison and to prosecute its remaining detainees before civilian judges and juries.
The rhetoric was toned down as well. Officials no longer speak of a "global war on terror" or "enemy combatants." They talk instead of applying the "rule of law" to cope with new problems.
But Obama's drone policy has caused dismay among many human rights activists. When Koh stepped forward two years ago to offer a legal defense, it had a familiar ring. In wartime and in "response to the horrific 9/11 attacks," the president "may use force consistent with the [nation's] inherent right of self-defense," Koh told the American Society of International Law.
Right. An inherent national interest to self-defense, which includes developing a drone warfare kill-list regime unprecedented in its human rights violations. Gee, not even John Yoo thought of that. But then again, Yoo wrote sincerely to protect American security. The progressives just say and do whatever they can to win and keep power.
PHOTO CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons.