John Yoo's Weak Defense of Post-9/11 Counterterrorism Policy

For him, the fact that we haven't suffered another major attack is everything. But what about the moral standing we've lost?

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John Yoo, the Bush Administration lawyer instrumental in giving legal cover to torture, has opined in The Wall Street Journal about the lessons we've learned since 9/11, and followed up at Ricochet with this suddenly widespread opinion: "The most important thing to happen over the last decade: nothing. No new attacks on the United States, because of reasonable counter-terrorism policies that worked."

That's one way of looking at things. Here are a few complicating facts:

  • I write this post having just traveled through Madrid, site of the 2004 terrorist attack that killed 192 people and injured more than 2000. Upon flying into the airport there, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that going through customs was no more difficult than it was during my first visit to the country in August 2001. While using the country's speed train between Madrid and Cordoba, no one asked me to take off my shoes, let alone to grope me in the style of TSA. And these observable differences between life in the United States and Spain merely underscore the larger differences in the two countries' responses to being attacked by Islamist terrorists. But despite these differences, Spain hasn't been attacked again either. Neither has Bali or London.
  • The Bush Administration's most consequential response to 9/11, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, has resulted in almost 4,500 dead Americans, and roughly 32,000 wounded. (Plus many more dead Iraqi civilians.) For these people, post-9/11 policies chosen by the U.S. government haven't resulted in "nothing." They've resulted in many more deaths than we suffered during the September 11 attacks themselves.
  • The new powers assumed by the federal government to fight terrorists, including the PATRIOT Act, are now routinely used on criminal investigations that have nothing to do with terrorism.
  • Some new counterterrorism policies are not "reasonable." For example, the notion that the president can put American citizens on an assassination list, without showing any evidence that he is guilty of terrorism or offering any due process, is an affront to the constitution and prudential limits on executive power. 
  • To quote Ross Douthat: "Our post-9/11 attempts to transform the Muslim world have cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, and won us -- well, what? A liberated Iraq that's more in Iran's sphere of influence than ours, an Afghan war in which American casualties keep rising, an Arab Spring that threatens to encircle Israel with enemies, a Middle East where our list of reliable allies grows thin... after 10 years of conflict, we aren't exactly in short-term territory anymore. And pointing out that things could have been worse doesn't change the fact that our post-9/11 grand strategy has been associated with a steady erosion of America's position in the world."

There is, finally, the fact that thanks to people like Yoo, the U.S. has become a nation that tortured, that abused prisoners, that held innocent people for years on end without a trial or even charges against them, and that is unapologetic for having done so. He sums up a decade of anti-terrorism excess with the phrase "reasonable counter-terrorism policies that worked." If only that were so.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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