Koh maintains in his official statements that it was a smooth path. “Because my job is simply to provide the president and the secretary of state with the very best legal advice that I can give them, I have felt little conflict with my past roles as a law professor, dean, and human-rights lawyer,” he said at the March 2010 conference in Washington. Yet that may not be the whole story.
At the Fairmont, I ask Koh why he had seemed conflicted—and eventually changed his mind—about the drone strikes, mentioning what General Cartwright had told me. Standing near a coffee table, Koh is quiet for a moment. “I never said that,” he tells me.
“If that’s what Cartwright remembers, he’s wrong. I never used that phrase. If you look at the speech I gave at the ASIL conference, you’ll see that I said they were not ‘extrajudicial killings,’” he says, referring to his remarks from the international-law conference in March 2010.
Koh brushes off my question about the New York Times interview in which he criticized targeted killings and claims his views on the subject have been consistent. “I have never changed my mind,” he says. “Not from before I was in the government—or after."