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Thursday, October 28,2010

Lawyer who said waterboarding’s legal could make big waves at OU

By Jim Phillips
When Robert Ingram, director of Ohio University's George Washington Forum, signed up John Yoo for a speaking appearance tonight, he knew he was making a controversial choice.

If the average person recognizes Yoo's name, after all, it's probably in connection with the so-called "torture memos" he penned while working as a deputy assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.

In these now-notorious documents, Yoo laid out legal guidelines for just how painful and terrifying the "interrogation" of a suspected terrorist could be, and still stay within the letter of the Geneva Conventions.

Ingram said Tuesday, however, that even those who don't endorse Yoo's lawyerly rationale for water-boarding should appreciate his willingness to defend his views in a public forum.

"This isn't a bomb-thrower," the history professor insisted. "He's somebody who's willing to debate rationally, from first principles... He's willing to go in public and argue his point, and open himself to criticism."

Asked where he personally stands on Yoo's torture opinions, Ingram said as organizer of the event, "I have to be agnostic."

Though Yoo's scheduled appearance Thursday, to lecture on "Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from Washington to Obama," hasn't triggered any large-scale protest response, a handful of history graduate students have said they want nothing to do with him, and wish OU would take the same attitude.

Doctoral student Gerald Goodwin said he doubts that someone formally accused of international human-rights crimes, as Yoo and other Bush administration officials have been in a Spanish court, would be treated so hospitably by OU if he weren't a U.S. citizen.

"If this were someone from Uganda, if this were someone from Cambodia... they would not be rolling out a welcoming mat for him," he alleged.

Goodwin and a couple of his fellow grad students have a letter about Yoo's appearance in today's issue of The Athens NEWS, and have scheduled a counter-event Monday afternoon. Two professors and two students will speak on topics related to Yoo's appearance, followed by discussion.

Ingram rolled his eyes good-naturedly when asked whether he's caught any flak from his academic colleagues over booking Yoo.

"People say things - politely - that are just outrageous," he reported. "I've had people who basically have said, 'You're a shill for the right wing.' No; I'm a contrarian... This has been very eye-opening for me."

He added that, whatever response you have to Yoo's views on "harsh interrogation," it's hard to deny he's a significant figure in constitutional law, whose ideas are shaping policy.

Yoo's ideas on executive power, for example, though associated with Bush, have largely been adopted intact by the Obama administration, he said.

Regarding Yoo's status as an accused human-rights offender in the dock, Ingram argued that the Spanish court case doesn't make him a moral untouchable - or a convicted criminal, for that matter. "People can be wrong, and not be criminal," he pointed out.

Ultimately, he suggested, the main reasons to approve Yoo's appearance at OU are the old standbys - academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas.

"This is what civil debate is about," he insisted. "If you can't have this at a university, where can you have it?" He also suggested that the most effective approach for anyone who considers Yoo a vile apologist for torture would not be to boycott his lecture, but to come and ask him some sharply pointed questions.

When you vehemently disagree with people, he asked, "Do you want them to hide? Or do you want them to come out and argue with you? I'll take someone who's going to come out and argue with me." He promised that in a Q&A session after Yoo's talk, "there are no holds barred."

GOODWIN SUGGESTED he's not buying the academic freedom spin on Yoo's appearance.

"Debate is good," he acknowledged. "But the question is not necessarily, 'is debate good?' It's, what sort of debate are you having?"

All kinds of people hold controversial opinions that could spark a nice hot debate, he noted - for example, the many Americans who insist Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen. But, Goodwin observed, no one at OU recommends paying such people to come in and publicly defend their beliefs.

Both Ingram and Goodwin said some eyebrows have been raised over the fact that Yoo's visit is being funded by grant money from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. The foundation was started by one of the heirs to Koch Industries, a giant oil, gas, and chemical conglomerate, and is generally placed on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

In fact, an Aug. 28 article in the New York Times, about Charles Koch and his brother, David, was headlined, "The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party."

OU spokeswoman Katie Quaranta confirmed that Yoo is being paid a $2,000 honorarium from the grant. "Other expenses related to his visit will be paid for by the Koch grant and in part by donations from other foundations and OU alumni," she said.

Ingram said the Koch family's political philosophy seems to him more libertarian than social-conservative, and in any case, the $14,000 grant he got from the foundation is to bring in speakers "of my choice, not the Kochs' choice." He noted that a previous speaker paid from the grant was Princeton professor Harold James, who spoke on "The World Order after the Financial Crisis," and offered, in Ingram's words, "sort of a Keynesian argument."

Yoo will speak at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Baker Center Theater. The history students' parallel event will be in Baker Center room 242 at 5 p.m. Monday.


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