Robert F. Turner

Prof. Robert F. Turner

Professor, General Faculty; Distinguished Fellow and Associate Director, Center for National Security Law, University of Virginia School of Law

Topics: International & National Security Law • Federalism & Separation of Powers

Robert F. Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia School of Law. He co-founded the Center for National Security Law  with Professor John Norton Moore in April 1981 and has served as its associate director since then except for two periods of government service in the 1980s and during 1994-95, when he occupied the Charles H. Stockton Chair of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. A former Army captain and veteran of two tours in Vietnam, Turner served as a research associate and public affairs fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace  before spending five years in the mid-1970s as national security adviser to U.S. Senator Robert P. Griffin,  a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (where he anticipated by seven years the Supreme Court’s landmark INS v. Chadhadecision, striking down legislative vetoes). He has also served in the executive branch as a member of the Senior Executive Service, first in the Pentagon as special assistant to the under secretary of defense for policy, then in the White House as counsel to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, and at the State Department as principal deputy and then acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs. In 1986, he became the first president of the congressionally established United States Institute of Peace.

A former three-term chairman of the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security (and for many years editor of the ABA National Security Law Report), Turner also chaired the Executive-Congressional Relations Subcommittee of the ABA Section on International Law and Practice and has chaired or co-chaired the National Security Law Subcommittee of the Federalist Society’s International and National Security Law Practice Group since 1997.

Turner has taught undergraduate courses at Virginia on international law, U.S. foreign policy, the Vietnam War and foreign policy and the law in what is now the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics. In addition, he has co-taught National Security Law and advanced national security law seminars on the Indochina War and on war and peace with Moore at the Law School.

The author or editor of 17 books and monographs (including co-editor of the Center's 1,600-page National Security Law & Policy casebook, National Security Law Documents, and Legal Issues in the Struggle Against Terror) and numerous articles in law reviews and other professional journals, Turner has also contributed articles to most of the major U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times and USA Today, and has been a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. In an op-ed published in the International Herald Tribune in September 1990, he and Moore were the first to call for a war-crimes trial for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and for international controls over his weapons of mass destruction, and the following month he wrote the lead story in The Washington Post Sunday Outlook Section, “Killing Saddam: Would It Be a Crime?,”  arguing that Hussein would be a lawful target during Operation Desert Storm. (His reasoning contributed to the modern legal justification for drone strikes against terrorist leaders.) Eight years later, Turner published an op-ed in USA Today, “In Self-defense, U.S. Has Right to Kill bin Laden.” In July 2007, he co-authored an article in The Washington Post with former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General P.X. Kelley, “War Crimes and the White House,”  criticizing the use of unlawful interrogation techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency. On the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon he authored an article in The Wall Street Journal,  “Saigon’s Fall Still Echoes Today,”  noting that after the war ended, Hanoi admitted it had made a decision in 1959 to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and start sending troops, weapons and supplies into South Vietnam to overthrow its government — just as the United States had charged. In 2010 Turner received the first “person of the year” award from SACEI, a major Vietnamese-American human rights organization.

A frequent lecturer and debater, Turner has spoken at dozens of law schools around the nation and in other fora — taking on as many as four opponents at a time. His debate opponents have included former or future deans of Yale, Stanford and the University of Chicago law schools. Following a 1987 debate against Dean Harlan Cleveland  (Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient) in which Turner defended the legality of U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras during the Reagan Administration, the host student debating societies awarded Turner the victory by an 85-to-15 percent margin.

Turner has also written and lectured widely on University of Virginia founder and America’s third president Thomas Jefferson.  In 2000-01 he chaired the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission.  In his 2012 book Master of the Mountain, Henry Wiencek described Turner as “Jefferson’s chief scholarly defender.”

A former distinguished lecturer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Turner is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Academy of Political Science, the Committee on the Present Danger, and other professional organizations. He was selected for inclusion in Who’s Who in American Law less than two years after graduating from law school and Who’s Who in the World before he reached the age of 40. Turner has testified before more than a dozen different congressional committees on issues of international or constitutional law and related topics.