How The Bush-Era Torture Memos Are Destroying America’s Moral High Ground Against Russia

Torture memo author John Yoo

John Yoo, the author of the infamous Bush Administration memos providing a bogus legal justification for torture, left the Department of Justice nearly ten years ago. Since then, he’s retained his prestigious position on Berkeley’s law school faculty. He has not been disbarred for providing some of the most incompetent legal advice in the Justice Department’s history. A 2006 law largely immunizes him from legal accountability for his work authorizing torture. And he uses the Wall Street Journal‘s opinion page as if it were his own personal blog.

In other words, when Yoo entered the Bush Administration in 2001, he was a little-known law professor writing pieces that were mostly read by other law professors. Today, he is one of the most well-known and visible legal commentators in the country — despite the fact that he is best known for what was, at best, professional incompetence.

Beyond the sheer injustice that Yoo gets to live an affluent and comfortable life despite being complicit in torture, Yoo’s lack of accountability is also providing Russia with an opportunity to chip away at America’s moral high ground as we try to pressure that nation to quit some of its human rights abuses:

Russia on Saturday banned 18 Americans from entering the country in response to Washington imposing sanctions on 18 Russians for alleged human rights violations.

The list released by the Foreign Ministry includes John Yoo, a former U.S. Justice Department official who wrote legal memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques; David Addington, the chief of staff for former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney; and two former commanders of the Guantanamo Bay detention center: retired Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller and Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson.

The move came a day after the U.S. announced its sanctions under the Magnitsky Law, named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested in 2008 for tax evasion after accusing Russian police officials of stealing $230 million in tax rebates. He died in prison the next year, allegedly after being beaten and denied medical treatment.

Now, let’s be absolutely clear, Russia’s record on human rights is atrocious and cannot be brushed away by loose comparisons to John Yoo’s actions or Dick Cheney’s. But a strong record on human rights is critical to convincing the the world that United States is serious when it calls for action against human rights abuses around the world. It is tough to offer such leadership so long as men like John Yoo go about their lives in the United States with impunity.