When Political Scientists Legitimate Torturers

The American Political Science Association, which will be meeting next week in San Francisco, will be featuring John Yoo on two panels. Many political scientists are protesting this decision, and will be protesting Yoo at his panels. I am not attending the conference this year, but I wrote the following letter to the two program chairs of the conference.

Dear Professors Jamal and Hyde:

In his celebrated diary of daily life in the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer writes:

If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honourable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.

The reason Klemperer reserved such special contempt for the professors and intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s was that professors and intellectuals played a special role in bringing on the horrors of the Nazi regime, as Claudia Koonz and other historians have documented. Not only did those professors and intellectuals provide some of the leading arguments for the rise of that regime, but they also served in that regime: as doctors, population experts, engineers, propagandists. And lawyers.

We now come to the matter of John Yoo, Emmanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, who has been invited to address the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, which will be meeting in San Francisco next week, and whose speech acts while serving as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration did so much to bring about the torture regime of that era. While there is no need to rehearse all of those speech acts, we might recall that in his lengthy memo of 2003, Yoo claimed that detainees of the US military could be legally stripped of their clothing “for a period of time” and interrogated naked. If you have trouble visualizing what that might mean, have a look at these photographs from Abu Ghraib. In that same memo, Yoo mooted the possibility that actions ordinarily considered illegal—including gouging an eye, dousing a prisoner with “scalding water, corrosive acid, or caustic substance,” or biting—might well be legal in time of war: the president’s powers as commander in chief were that broad.

When it comes to torture, our minds often drift to the torturer or his higher-ups in the Pentagon and the CIA. But as Jane Mayer documented in The Dark Side, the torture regime of George W. Bush was very much a lawyers’ regime. As one of Yoo’s colleagues told Mayer, “It’s incredible, but John Yoo and David Addington were running the war on terror almost on their own.” Yoo’s memos were not the idle speculations of a cloistered academic; stamped with the seal of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Justice Department, they had the force of law, issuing binding interpretations of existing statutes that could only be overturned by the Attorney General. As Mayer explains, “For Yoo’s allies in the White House, his position at OLC was a political bonanza. It was like having a personal friend who could write medical prescriptions.” Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, who headed the OLC in 2003, adds that Yoo-type memos were essentially “get-out-of-jail-free cards.” That is why former CIA head George Tenet has written:

Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, in situations like these [the capture, interrogation, and torture of Al Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda] you don’t call in the tough guys; you call in the lawyers.

That’s how powerful John Yoo was.

Since the election of Donald Trump, we have heard much from our profession about “norm erosion” and the ways in which an ostensibly democratic society like our own can devolve into an authoritarian or even fascist society. While the history of the Trump ascendancy has yet to be written, it will be difficult, when the time comes, for future historians to neglect the role of John Yoo in preparing the way for that devolution. As Duke Law Professor Walter Dellinger, who headed the OLC under Bill Clinton, said of the vision of “the embodiment of power for the executive” that lay at the heart of Yoo’s memos: “it’s like Mussolini in 1930.”

I fear that with this invitation to Yoo to address our profession, as if he were simply the author of controversial and heterodox opinions rather than the architect of a regime of torture and barbarity, the American Political Science Association has written itself a chapter in those future histories.


Corey Robin

Professor of Political Science

Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center


  1. John K. Wilson August 25, 2017 at 10:56 am | #

    I think it’s entirely appropriate to protest Yoo, but not to protest the decision to let him speak at the conference. He is not an invited speaker by the APSA, but simply a normal presenter on a panel organized for the conference. Should the APSA declare a ban on him? Should they reject any panel that includes him? I think they should follow the normal process for judging conference submissions, and then allow individuals to protest or condemn Yoo for his actions. The fact that Yoo put his evil ideas into action doesn’t change the reality that he is presenting his ideas, and we should not be banning people and their ideas.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 25, 2017 at 11:41 am | #

      It is worth remembering that, under the statutes of the Geneva Convention, John Yoo is not just some guy who was able to have his evil ideas made into action. His official actions, which include his writings, undertaken during the time of his status as a lawyer employed by the federal government’s executive branch, expose him to the charge that he is an unindicted war criminal.

      This is because, officially as a paid public servant, and as a matter of accepted policy by the executive branch, John Yoo “legally” enabled the heinous violations of international law by the Administration he is charged to represent.

      It is only because of this that one may request the banning of Professor Yoo from the conference, or to announce that one won’t be attending same. Or, not to invite Yoo to speak at the conference in the first place. That he was is evidence of the erosion to which Corey refers.

      If you wish to protect ideas (including a vigorous defense of torture) get someone else — preferably someone whose historic and real world actions don’t invite a call for his arrest – to deliver those “ideas”.

    • LFC August 25, 2017 at 3:48 pm | #

      I used to be a member of APSA, am not any more (for reasons other than ideological/political).

      I think John Wilson’s distinction may have some merit. Yoo apparently is not invited to address a plenary session; rather, he’s on a couple of panels (acc. to the letter). There are tons of panels at an APSA annual meeting. No one is forced to attend these panels or pay attention to them, and the conventional wisdom about annual mtgs and conferences such as this one is that the majority of people attend them to network and to do related stuff like that, w the purely intellectual aspects rather secondary for most (though not all) attendees. Being on a couple of panels at an APSA annual mtg is not really “addressing the profession.” If he were a featured speaker at a highlighted session, that could well be a different matter.

      That said, the letter does an eloquent job of summarizing the case vs. Yoo as enabler/legitmator of key features of ‘the dark side’ of the GW Bush admin.

    • geoffreyskoll August 25, 2017 at 4:33 pm | #

      I’m with victor Klemperer. But, you’re right. He shouldn’t be banned. He should be hanged. This is not a free speech matter. Yoo is a criminal, even though he’ll never be prosecuted in the US or any tribunal serving the imperial powers. OK, maybe not hanged, because as Camus adjured us all, neither victims nor executioners. Nonetheless, there are probably worse things to do to guys like Yoo. Maybe require that he only be allowed to speak naked.

  2. David Egan August 25, 2017 at 11:04 am | #

    Thank you Robin, for this brief but powerful letter. You never seem to forget the human side of your profession.

  3. Roquentin August 25, 2017 at 11:16 am | #

    Kudos to you on the letter.

    Also, I recently read Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. I don’t know if you have read that book, or Agamben more generally but I think you’d like it. There are lengthy discussions of Carl Schmitt and the latter half is spent trying to merge Arendt’s ideas on totalitarianism with Foucault’s biopolotics. Reading it, I knew, that this was the text was the real thing. Good in the way that only theory in the continental tradition ever has been. The way he weaves together the “state of exception” (in this case the legal actions permitted by terrorist threat), sovereign power (the Bush regime), and the concept of Homo Sacer, an old term from Roman Law for someone who can be killed but not sacrificed without legal repercussion (those who were tortured and imprisoned in places like Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay), while showing how these are all part of the same constellation, that one implies the other……it was a tour de force of philosophical writing. I think I’m going to devote the time and energy necessary to read the entire series of books he wrote after that. Agamben is where it’s at.

  4. SteveLaudig August 25, 2017 at 11:55 am | #

    And would the APSA invite Eichmann to be a presenter on rail traffic control and management? After all he didn’t ‘really’ kill anyone and was repelled by violence and ‘disorder’ if Arendt’s assessments are correct.

  5. Paul Sawyer August 25, 2017 at 1:01 pm | #

    A central statement for our times, which addresses from the negative side the power and responsibility of intellectuals, and makes clear yet again the indissoluble connections between academic professionalization and the moral life. “Doctor” Kissinger, mass murderer, kingmaker, and Pope of strategic knowledge, provides the paradigm in our sick recent history for the legitimizing power of “intellect,” but he has many descendants, right down to Mitchell and Jessen in the APA. And they continue to proliferate. A lot to think about here, not just in regards to isolated nefarious individuals who do the bidding of regimes of torture but about the ways the academic disciplines shape and shift their self-definitions in order to accommodate and embrace brutality. Bravo!

  6. Charles Ward August 25, 2017 at 3:49 pm | #

    Thank you Mr Robin, I think everyone that reads your compelling post should pass it on to all they know.

  7. Thomas Rossetti August 26, 2017 at 12:26 am | #

    Bravo Mr. Robin! Bravo, Bravo!

  8. Tom DUmm August 26, 2017 at 9:33 am | #

    Composing my own letter to the organizers now. Thanks, Corey, for leading the way!

  9. Lichanos August 27, 2017 at 12:05 pm | #

    When I wrote this, I don’t think I was yet aware of Inquisitor Yoo.


  10. jonnybutter August 27, 2017 at 3:40 pm | #

    We’re the ‘We Tortured Some Folks’ Folks™*

    *h/t Harry Shearer

  11. georgephillies September 3, 2017 at 9:05 am | #

    George D. J. Phillies, “America is Guilty of Torture”, Long Term View 6, 84-89 (2006), Massachusetts School of Law: Andover, MA.

  12. Michael September 3, 2017 at 10:02 pm | #

    Beautifully said Mr. Robin.

  13. Michael Epton September 9, 2017 at 6:23 pm | #

    Consider the event: the APSA Convention. The APSA counts as a past president James Q. Wilson. He who devised the “broken windows theory” used to justify police violence for over 30 years. I can’t take seriously anything done by the American Political Science Association.

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