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Human Rights Defender Now Fights For U.S. Policy

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Human Rights Defender Now Fights For U.S. Policy


Human Rights Defender Now Fights For U.S. Policy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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One of the fiercest critics of executive power during the Bush administration is now President Obama's top lawyer at the State Department. Harold Koh criticized legal maneuvers that justified harsh interrogations and other national security tactics during the Bush years.

But today, in front of a Senate panel, Koh will face questions about whether he's bent the law for the current administration to continue U.S. operations in Libya. NPR's Carrie Johnson has this profile.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Harold Koh made his name fighting for refugees from Haiti, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. And after decades of arguing the U.S. has a responsibility to protect human rights and respect international law, Koh became dean of the Yale Law School. America shouldn't go it alone, he's argued in countless articles and speeches.

Mr. HAROLD KOH (State Department Legal Adviser): For more than 30 years, as a lawyer, in every job I've held, I've struggled with the same question: how to promote a lawful U.S. foreign policy.

JOHNSON: That's Koh, speaking to an audience filled with law students at the American Constitution Society this month. His remarks came a day before newspaper reports that he advised the White House what's going on in Libya doesn't amount to hostilities under the law, so the president doesn't have to get permission from Congress. That came as a surprise to many people who have worked with Koh.

Professor MARY ELLEN O'CONNELL (University of Notre Dame): My name is Mary Ellen O'Connell, and I'm a professor of international law at Notre Dame University. Policies I believe he would've found highly questionable if they had been carried out by the Bush administration, he now is willing to so affirmatively defend.

JOHNSON: Libya isn't the only area where Koh staked out positions that are controversial among his colleagues on the left - for instance, the killing of Osama bin Laden. Some human rights groups say bin Laden should have been given a chance to surrender. Koh says the operation was well within the bounds of the law.

And an even more touchy subject: He's OK'd the use of American drones that target people in Pakistan and Yemen.

Koh knows he's become a target of criticism.

Mr. KOH: In this day and age, some people love to play gotcha. And it's easier for them to do so. The longer I serve in government, I get questions of the following form: You're a hypocrite, aren't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Koh says he doesn't see inconsistencies in the legal positions he's advanced in his two years at the State Department. And there's another question Koh says he gets a lot at Washington cocktail parties.

Mr. KOH: You know, isn't it hard to be a government lawyer, having to say all those things you don't believe? So my answer - and I say it to all of you - I never say anything I don't believe.

JOHNSON: Walter Dellinger, a former Justice Department official, says Koh's critics don't understand where he's coming from.

Mr. WALTER DELLINGER (Former Justice Department Official): It's wrong to expect an academic like Harold Koh to take the same positions in government that he would've taken as a law professor, because when you're a government official in the executive branch, you are working within a context of a reasoned set of executive branch precedents and traditions.

JOHNSON: In other words, as all lawyers, Koh advises his clients, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama, about what's legal, and he lets them choose among the options.

Koh says he refused to apologize for his harsh attacks on the Bush administration when he was going through a tough confirmation fight.

Mr. KOH: I've lived the life I wanted to live. I've said the things I wanted to say. If you really want me to say I'm sorry, I'll say I'm sorry that my life's work has been misunderstood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Koh didn't say he was sorry then, and he's not apologizing now.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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