By: Christopher Punongbayan
We are almost eight years out from the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Our country faced immense challenges in the immediate aftermath, and national leaders acted swiftly to respond to crises across the board. History has borne out the hard truth that many of the ongoing controversies both foreign and domestic in which are embroiled are, in fact, of our own making. But, moreover, we now know that a genial, soft-spoken Asian American attorney by the name of John Yoo steered the direction of key national security deliberations in the White House from 2001-2003.
When President Obama took office, he inherited a legal regime where the Executive possessed highly consolidated powers over matters of national security. In the period following 9/11, President Bush authorized sweeping changes to national security law that increased secrecy, eroded rights, and did not make our country safer. Many of these changes are still enshrined in law, and they arguably form the most enduring legacy of the Bush Administration.
Karl Rove was the chief political architect in the White House, but behind the scenes, John Yoo acted as one of the key legal architects of these changes. Yoo served in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Yoo authored an opinion, “Why We Endorsed Warrantless Wiretaps,” and cited Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist who argued that the president should have limitless authority to protect the nation. This was in response to a recent report by the inspectors general of the five leading national security agencies suggesting that President Bush may have violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In particular, Yoo hones in the issue of “intercepting international communications of terrorists without a judicial warrant,” and states that this was an inherent power of the president.
As an Asian American attorney myself, I can’t help but be pained by the level of public attention that Yoo receives on fundamental national questions such as separation of powers. It is the diversity of voices that makes our democracy stronger, but John Yoo didn’t just have a microphone: he advised senior administration officials as to the occasions when the rights of US citizens exist or when they don’t exist. And not just on the warrantless surveillance issue.
Yoo is known for authoring memos arguing that the Geneva Convention does not bind the United States government and that the president had the power to authorize torture techniques such as waterboarding. For non-citizens on U.S. soil or elsewhere, this has led to an unprecedented retrenchment of universal human rights. Think: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, post 9-11 disappearances in the U.S., etc.
In the ongoing agenda of race conservatives to “erase race,” I claim my right to maintain my Asian American identity. I assert that there is an Asian American “community,” however misunderstood it may be. John Yoo is part of our great racial experiment to define what it means to be Asian in America. But, I want to be clear, that John Yoo doesn’t speak for the Asian Americans who fight everyday to ensure basic dignity and respect for people who are outside of the mainstream. And John Yoo certainly does not speak for me.
The platform that John Yoo continues to enjoy must be balanced by other Asian Americans who promote civil and human rights with equally strong conviction. While the Cabinet appointments of Gary Locke, Steven Chu, and Eric Shinseki are tremendously important, we need to have other Asian Americans in the White House and in other positions of prominence who will uphold our country’s great tradition of protecting the most vulnerable members of society through the force of civil rights law.