The "A" List (Part 2 of 2)


Ten Asians making the news in America.

< BACK to The "A" List

5. John Choon Yoo — The President's legal (com)pass to Guantanamo Bay

Cassel: If the President deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?

Yoo: No treaty.

Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.

Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

As a script for late night TV talk shows such as Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, it would have been satirical. But as a serious real-life exchange between law professor Doug Cassel and John Yoo, one-time legal counsel to the US Justice Department, the implications are too dire to be comic.

An alumnus of Harvard and Yale, Yoo issued a 2002 memo that stated Bush could legally hold detainees without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

Yoo's argument is that in times of war, powers given to the president under the constitution cannot be restrained by any law, national or international. This means he need not abide by the Geneva Convention that bars inhumane treatment of prisoners-of-war. In Yoo's own words: "To pretend that the Geneva Convention applies to Al Qaeda, a non-state actor that targets civilians and disregards other laws of war, denies the reality of dramatic changes in the international system."

Yoo not only applied this to al-Qaeda but also to combatants in Afghanistan, which, by his definition, was no longer a state. The points, when first published in that memo, set alarm bells ringing at the State Department but the president accepted it whole-heartedly.

In the name of homeland security, Yoo champions using supercomputers to analyse information for suspicious patterns of behavior. British authorities used data mining to examine telephone, e-mail and banking records and uncover connections between ordinary Britons and suspected terrorists. In the US though, the programme was killed when Congress cut off all funding, fearful that it was an invasion of privacy.

Yoo calls this an over-reaction. Plus, the Fourth Amendment - the right of the people to be secure against violation in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures - doesn't apply because "the consumer has already voluntarily turned over the information to a third party".

State intrusion into private lives already troubles many Americans, whose personal communication, medical, financial, and other records can now legally be searched, under the Patriot Act signed into law 45 days after 9/11. Who's the architect of that Act? Yoo. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, where he currently teaches, have tried unsuccessfully to remove him.

Yoo and his parents left South Korea for Philadelphia when he was just three months old. Having lived under the Japanese occupation, he says, they came looking for "education, economic opportunity and democracy".

Tellingly, freedom is not on that list.

6. Carol Lam — the woman who went after the wrong men

At the end of 2006, the Bush administration fired eight federal prosecutors. One of them was Bush appointee, Carol Lam.

Neither the government nor Lam has kissed and told the public why she was sacked but speculation is rife.

Could it be her stand on illegal immigration, which the Justice Department has recently criticised?

Under Lam, the number indicted for illegal immigration had fallen. She only prosecuted illegals that endangered others or had long criminal records. The rest were simply deported when arrested.

Instead of chasing the coyotes who physically smuggled people across, she went for those at the top of these organisations and corrupt Border Patrol officers.

Lam says the prosecutions she secured had a larger impact on the community, but with fewer convictions, she just seemed less efficient.

Chief US District Judge Irma Gonzalez points out: "In this district, it's hard to ignore the border." But the government says this is not why she was sacked.

Okay. What about her investigations of powerful men?

Lam is known to be one who goes after the big boys. On May 10 2006, Lam informed the Justice Department she was investigating Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis for bribery.

The next day, the Attorney-General's Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson sent an e-mail to the White House.

"The real problem we have right now is Carol Lam... That leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her four-year term expires."

Before this, her most famous conviction had been Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, for tax evasion and accepting more than US$2.4 million in bribes from defence contractors. Not satisfied with just getting Cunningham, Lam had also intended to investigate his crony Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the CIA's top administrator then.

Senator Dianne Feinstein is on record saying that that did Lam in. The Democrats are having a field day with her sacking, suggesting political motivations. The administration denies it.

Foggo has since been indicted on fraud and money-laundering charges. Samson has already resigned.

More significantly, his boss, Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, is far from being home free. The scandal which started with Lam could now cost the Attorney-General his job.



7. Ehren Watada — the lieutenant who said no.

The Bush administration doesn't like dissent when it comes to Iraq, especially when it comes from the rank and file.

Ehren Watada was 24 when he got accepted into the Officer Candidate School in March 2003, the same month the US launched air strikes in Iraq. Despite reservations, he decided to give his president the " benefit of the doubt". After 9/11, he reasoned, his country needed him and he needed to serve his country.

Watada was eventually appointed second lieutenant and served a year in Korea. In 2005, he was told he would be sent to Iraq. While awaiting deployment, Watada studied the war in Iraq and concluded that it was "not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law". As he watched the military funerals, he decided to speak out. He told his superiors he would refuse the order to go to Iraq.

Watada is not the first American soldier to refuse to serve in Iraq.

From 2003 to the time of his refusal, the US military had already approved the applications of 87 who were conscientiously opposed to the war, while denying another 101. He was, however, the first officer to be charged for it.

The lieutenant's resignation was rejected by the army on grounds that he had not finished his term. He was warned he would be court-marshalled but Watada would not board the plane for Iraq, with the rest of the Third Stryker Brigade.

Following this, one count of missing movement for going AWOL and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for comments he made against his superiors, including Commander-in-Chief President Bush, were levelled against Watada.

The trial took place this January but a mistrial was declared after a week over misinterpretation of a legal brief. A new date has been set for this July. If convicted, Watada could face up to six years imprisonment. The defence will argue "double jeopardy" which prevents a defendant from being charged twice for the same crime.

Pentagon figures show that out of the US Army's 500,000-strong forces, more than 10,000 soldiers have deserted since 2003. Many hide up in Canada.

Some experts believe the war in Iraq contravenes international law, and the Nuremburg Principles require soldiers to consciously not participate. Bush understands this for he himself warned the Iraqi people at the start, "Your fate will depend on your actions...and it will be no defence to say, 'I was just following orders.'"

In the end though, one principle will trump them all.

The bottom-line: "You are either with us or against us."

8. Eric Shinseki—the general knows his men

He was the first Asian-American four-star general and the US Army's Chief of Staff from 1999 to 2003. Now retired, Shinseki is best remembered for telling the US Senate Armed Services committee before the war that "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be required for deployment to post-war Iraq.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called the figure "wildly off the mark". As of now, total US troop deployment to Iraq stands at 130,000 and top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is requesting an additional 30,000 by this summer, with a realistic timetable for withdrawal still uncertain.

Wolfowitz's rebuke of Shinseki could well be the most direct public dressing down of a four-star general since President Truman sacked Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for insubordinaton, after the general issued his own ultimatum to China, threatening to spread the ongoing war on the Korean peninsula there.

In the end though, Shinseki - who had drawn on army studies and his own experience in the Balkans (having been in charge of occupation logistics in Kosovo) - proved to be the one American who got it right about the Iraq war, from the start.

Now, how many in the administration can lay claim to that?



9. Yul Kwon — Gone home, Gook!

"Gook" is a derogatory term for Asians in the US. First used during the Korean War, it is believed to have been derived from the Korean word for "person". It was also used during the 13th season of the popular reality show, Survivor, in which Korean Yul Kwon, was the last to go home and the eventual winner. For the first time participants had been divided racially into four groups according to whether they were African, Asian, Hispanic or Caucasian. The show's host said they decided to play on the ethnic pride they witnessed at the casting, when they tried to put together the most ethnically diverse group of contenders ever on Survivor for its weekly audience of more than 16 million.

Each episode, one person was voted off the show by the others, and contestants had to form alliances and strategise to make sure it wasn't them. In the end it was the two Korean-Americans, Yul Kwon and Becky Lee, and Hispanic Oscar Lusth, who managed to remain in the race.

When Yul Kwon eventually won last December as the last man left standing, both the mainstream and Internet media were buzzing. The good-looking and athletic 31-year-old was to "smash stereotypes about Asian-American men". Suddenly here was an Asian male who was one of People Magazine's sexiest men of 2006.

Single-handedly, Yul Kwon has made Asian-Americans more than just geeks, something its lobby groups have tried but never quite managed.

10. Cho Seung-Hui The Misfit

April 16th, he murdered 32 fellow students at Virginia Tech University before killing himself. Cho Seung-Hui blew the lid off a slew of issues, from gun control to campus security. As the media tried to examine his motivations, the uncomfortable truth began to re-surface regarding the Asian community in the US.

Cho had been living in the US since he was eight, but this was an immigrant who could not quite fit in, though he was living in Virginia which, with its 4.5 % population of Asians, was one of the states with a relatively higher proportion of Asians.

It could or could not have anything to do with his being Asian, but Koreans took his being ethnically Korean very personally. They apologised for his actions as though they themselves were responsible for the massacre. Cho's outburst affected not only the Koreans, but also the Chinese, the Japanese, and anyone else who looked like a Korean to the Americans. It did not matter how long they had already been living in the US; the backlash targeted anyone who looked Asian.

Chinese Wayne Chiang would know this. In the hours following the massacre, he was identified from his profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook as the one responsible. He got 80,000 more hits on his website. As Chiang himself said on an interview: "It was five for five. I was Asian, I lived in (the dorm), I go to V Tech, I recently broke up with my girlfriend and I collect guns."

He is still getting hate mail, like this one posted on his site 11 days after the killings.

"Are you the one related to the VA Tech shooter Cho Seung Hui? One of my friends attends VA tech and the last thing she needs is another dumb chink going crazy.

Go swim back to North Korea with the rest of your communist, anti-American gooks, and take your ugly little rice-eating relatives with you."

Anti-Asian incidents have traditionally brought disparate Asian communities together.

In 1982, Chinese-American Vincent Chin got into a scuffle with Ronald Ebens at his bachelor party held at a Detriot strip club. Ebens later caught up with Chin after they left. With his stepson Nitz, he bludgeoned Chin with a baseball bat. Witnesses said Ebens, an autoworker who had been laid off, had yelled at Chin, "It's because of you little motherf**kers that we're out of work."

Ebens had mistaken Chin for a Japanese. Chin died five days later.

That incident is regarded as a milestone in Asian-American history. The New York Times noted in 1983 that traditionally rival ethnic groups, including Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese, were banding together to form action groups.

"It's come to the point that as long as you 'look' Asian, you're open to attack, regardless of which group you belong to,'' said Stewart Kwoh, director of the Asian Pacific Legal Center.

Ellen Young, the first Asian American in the New York State Assembly, believes the situation has improved for Asians.

This April they held demonstrations outside CBS network's offices, when its affiliate station WFNY-FM's daily morning show "The Dog House With JV and Elvis" aired a racially charged prank call to a Chinese restaurant, with lines like "shrimp flied lice", poking fun at Asians not able to pronounce the letter 'r' and "Chinese man, tell me about your tiny egg roll... your tiny egg roll in your pants".

The outcry forced CBS to fire the hosts.

As Assemblywoman Young puts it, while they had to struggle for attention in the mainstream before, the Asian community have now succeeded in being heard.

For a community that started on America's sidelines, this is a considerable victory.


First Published: 
May/June 2007


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
You are not logged in:

dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

[email protected]