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How powerful is our president?

Charles Agar
Aspen Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet /The Aspen TimesJohn Yoo and David Kennedy debate the the presidency and the Constitution on Thursday during an Ideas Festival seminar in the McNulty Room of the Doerr-Hosier Center.
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ASPEN, Colorado ” The power of the president was under the microscope Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law professor and former Justice Department official under George W. Bush, debated presidential power with David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and history professor at Stanford, at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center.

Yoo has been criticized for a series of memos in 2002 and 2003 arguing that military interrogators could use harsh methods ” everything short of death or permanent damage ” to get information from detainees (the policy was later overturned).

Yoo said he was happy to be in Aspen but quipped that he wasn’t sure if he’d be invited back after Thursday’s forum, at which he stood up for many of the controversial decisions made during the Bush tenure in the White House.

“I’m here to make sure the presidency is safe, strong and secure for Barack Obama,” Yoo said to chuckles from the Aspen audience (in fact both men repeatedly referred to “President Obama”).

Yoo defended Bush moves allowing federal investigators the right to wire tap and giving military police more latitude with interrogation methods, saying it was a matter of security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Had Bush officials gone to Congress to discuss specifics on how to investigate and interrogate, they would have undermined U.S. intelligence gathering, Yoo said.

After U.S. military officials had captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, for example ” something Yoo likened to Al-Qaeda taking former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld captive ” he said military officials had little time to get information from the high-ranking Al-Qaeda official trained to endure tough interrogation.

Faced with an emergency, swift action and strong decisions are the hallmark of every great president, from Washington to Roosevelt, Yoo said.

“Our greatest presidents have been the most aggressive,” Yoo said, in making unilateral decisions in times of crisis ” even decisions that challenge the Constitution, he added.

Yoo pointed to Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of habeus corpus during the Civil War and Theodore Roosevelt ordering ships overseas, and asked whether Congress could dictate specific military strategy.

Yoo also noted that Congress has considerable power in its ability to vote down funding for any presidential decision.

Kennedy, the historian, agreed that there are many precedents where U.S. presidents have had to act quickly and with a heavy hand, but that in most cases, they’ve gone back to Congress for approval.

Kennedy asked who declares an emergency, how long an administration can claim there is an emergency and even the very definition of emergency.

And while he recommended giving the Bush administration “some slack” for the reaction to the devastating 2001 terrorist attack, in the end Kennedy said that the Bush administration made “serious compromises” to the civil liberties of American people.

Asked during audience questions if Bush went too far, Yoo said that his office and the President Bush acted accordingly, and that most of Bush’s moves have been ratified by Congress.

Yoo said that even a presumptive President Obama would continue to implement many Bush policies, and that if Obama started deferring to Congress on major decisions, he would “guarantee himself not to be a successful president.”


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