Last night, President Obama formally nominated my old friend Harold Hongju Koh to be the Legal Advisor at State. It’s a great choice. I had the honor and privilege of serving as Harold’s chief of staff during his tenure as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. It was most challenging, exciting, and enjoyable job I’ve ever had — as I once said to Harold, it was the most fun I ever had being miserable.
Harold has an extraordinary legal mind, and he is absolutely devoted to the cause of human rights. If confirmed, he will play a central role in the inter-agency efforts to deconstruct the Bush Administration’s torture and detention regime. Here’s something Harold wrote earlier this year that gives a sense of where he is coming from:
Eight years ago, as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, I testified to a United Nations committee in Geneva that the United States is “unalterably committed to a world without torture.” I continued: “Torture is prohibited by law throughout the United States. It is categorically denounced as a matter of policy and as a tool of state authority. In every instance, torture is a criminal offense. No official of the government—federal, state, or local, civilian or military—is authorized to commit or to instruct anyone else to commit torture. Nor may any official condone or tolerate torture in any form. No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification for torture.”
That unequivocal statement was not asserted casually—it had been previously agreed to by dozens of government officials. None of us dreamed that within a decade, our government would openly practice torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and that many Americans would defend the policy. . . .
As a professor of law, I was therefore sickened by the Justice Department’s August 2002 “torture opinion,” which concluded that U.S. officials can order the torture of suspected terrorists with impunity. I have worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including as an attorney in the office of the Justice Department that drafted that opinion. I understand the tremendous pressures that government lawyers labor under. Nevertheless, I considered this opinion to be a disgrace, not only to that office, but to the entire legal profession.. . .
The administration withdrew the memo in 2004, and has since retreated from some of its most extreme legal assertions. However, despite these gestures, it has still not backed down from the claim that torture in the shadows must remain an essential part of our antiterrorism policies. The Bush administration still argues that Congress has no power to regulate interrogation procedures, that past acts of waterboarding were legal, and that lawyers who object to the use of waterboarding are engaged in unpatriotic “lawfare.” . . .
America is a country founded on human rights. Human rights define who we are as a nation and as a people. A ban against official cruelty is one of our most sacred values. If we condone it, we gain nothing, and lose our identity.
It would be a mistake, however, to infer that he’s only interested in human rights. I’ve rarely met anyone who has such an encyclopedic grasp of legal issues (keeping in mind I’m not a lawyer). My favorite example of this is the first time he met my wife Molly, who is a reporter focusing on a section of the U.S. tax code known as transfer pricing. Much to her delight, he immediately engaged her in a conversation about it.
Perhaps as important as his legal skills is the fact that he is both relentless and fearless. When he led DRL, he helped make it a player in the building, in part because he never hesitated to stick to first principles, in part because he learned the game quickly and played it as well as anyone I’ve ever seen, and in part because he never allowed his determination to trump his decency.
At the risk of gushing (more), he is one of the most honorable and decent people I’ve ever known. Congratulations to Harold — and to Hillary for making such a fine choice.