“Harold Koh, who once called Bush the ‘torturer in chief,’ became one of President Obama’s fiercest defenders of aerial drone strikes.” Tara McKelvey, Interview With Harold Koh, Obama’s Defender of Drone Strikes (April 8, 2012). Koh, you will remember, was one of the harshest critics of the Bush Administration’s “torture memos” written by his former student John Yoo. Then he signed on to the Obama Administration and began to pimp the legal reasoning that justified targeted drone strikes as something other than assassinations. As the former Dean of Yale Law School, and a highly regarded expert on international law, Koh’s reputation burnished the argument.
Now consider John Yoo. His work on the “torture memos” got his him sued, widely condemned by his fellow academics, including Koh, subject to disbarment actions and generally ostracized by many.* The irony, of course, is that Yoo’s legal work on the “torture memos” resulted in no deaths, while Koh’s work greased the killing of many.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot, sorta. While Koh visited at NYU this semester, some student and faculty members circulated a petition. It states:
Given Mr. Koh’s role in crafting and defending what objectively amounts to an illegal and inhumane program of extrajudicial assassinations and potential war crimes, we find his presence at NYU Law and, in particular, as a professor of International Human Rights Law, to be unacceptable[.]”
Zoe Schlanger, Controversy Swirls Around NYU Law Professor Involved in Obama’s Drone Program, Newsweek (April 7, 2015).
Koh had earlier been criticized by a Yale colleague for precisely the same reasons:
Why did he get involved? It’s quite inconsistent with his general work before. Koh’s claim to fame as a law professor has to do with the notion that the way international law and human rights become effective is through internalization in people like the legal adviser at the State Department,” Bruce Ackerman, a Yale law professor, told the Daily Beast at the time. “To put it gently, targeted killings are not acceptable under international law.
This time around, however, the academics came out in full force lauding Koh and decrying the NYU petition.
Koh’s supporters recently released a statement that, while careful to acknowledge the importance of free debate, said, “We think it is patently wrong and unfair to suggest that Professor Koh acted unethically by his recent government service, or that his service now disqualifies him to teach human rights law on a leading law faculty.
Nahal Toosi, Harold Koh in the cross hairs, Politico, (April 19, 2015).
As for John Yoo, he takes no pleasure from the misfortunes of Koh, his former teacher and critic. Rather, Yoo said that although he disagrees with Koh on many issues, “the NYU protest strikes me as silly.” Id. Yoo added that “I don’t believe in karma.” Id.
While Yoo may not believe in karma, I know hypocrisy. Why did a large number of academics strive to make John Yoo a pariah while giving Koh a pass? Perhaps there are good reasons. But, somehow, I doubt it.
*”Harold Koh, the former dean of Yale Law School, once railed against the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism suspects, including deriding legal rationales laid out by a former student, John Yoo. After Yoo left the Bush team to return to teach at the University of California-Berkeley’s law school, he found himself a pariah, with many students unsuccessfully urging the school to drop him for policies they said justified torture.” Nahal Toosi, Harold Koh in the cross hairs, Politico, (April 19, 2015).