When Even Yoo Thinks You’ve Gone Too Far

Photograph of John Yoo.

Image via Wikipedia

Monday’s New York Times had the essential op-ed regarding the legality of our war/not-war with Libya. As Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman tells it, the Office of Legal Counsel — the administration’s “authoritative voice on matters of legal interpretation” — told the president that he would have to cease military action in Libya, because to not do so would be in violation of the War Powers Act. The administration disregarded this advice and had a separate group of attorneys and advisers whip up a strained redefinition of the word “war” to justify their case that the bombing could continue unabated.

As Ackerman points out, this is actually a step or two beyond the precedent set by the Bush administration. Bush’s decision to place John Yoo within the OLC heavily compromised the quality of that office’s legal opinions, but at least the Bush-era White House never directly contravened those opinions. At worst, the OLC remained a theoretical check on the power of the president.

No longer. By flouting an OLC ruling, Obama has gone too far even for Yoo. That’s John Yoo we’re talking about folks: the guy who considers the power of the executive so expansive that the president can legally authorize child abuse.

Overruling the OLC, as Obama has, is bad enough in a vacuum. But recall that this White House also reserves the right to act based on secret interpretations of controversial laws. Which makes you wonder: if the executive branch can interpret laws in secret, and those legal interpretations are no longer subject to even internal quality control, then what’s left? Does this White House acknowledge any meaningful checks on its legal authority? What does it think the president can’t do?

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