After spending the last eight years serving in the George W. Bush administration, John Bellinger III will start as a partner in Arnold & Porter’s Washington office on April 13.
Bellinger was most recently legal adviser at the State Department and was a senior associate White House counsel and legal adviser to the National Security Council prior to that. He held a non-political position at the Justice Department during the Bill Clinton administration, serving as counsel on national security matters in the Criminal Division. He has also held posts at the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In total, it’s been 16 years since Bellinger has practiced at a law firm. Before entering the public sector, he was a lawyer at what is now Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Since leaving the State Department three months ago, Bellinger says he has talked to several firms around town, though he declined to name which ones. In the end, he says he decided on Arnold & Porter because of the opportunity to help lead both the international law and national security practices. Another factor, he says, is that he has worked with the firm since his days at Wilmer when both firms shared Henry Kissinger as a client.
Once he starts at Arnold & Porter, Bellinger says he expects to represent both U.S. and foreign companies, and potentially foreign governments, in navigating various national security statutes, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and matters involving the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. He says he also plans to expand the firm’s international arbitration work—which primarily focuses on Latin and South American dispute resolution—into Europe and the Middle East.
During his time in the Bush administration, Bellinger sometimes found himself in the middle of controversy stemming from the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay. He was part of a U.S. delegation in 2006 that defended the United States rights record to the United Nations, and claimed the United States had not violated its obligations to prevent the torture of detainees. He was also reportedly one of several Bush officials involved in discussions with the CIA about whether to destroy videotapes showing interrogations of al-Qaida operatives. But Bellinger was often considered the moderate voice on Bush’s legal team. He argued against other Bush lawyers that al-Qaida detainees at Guantánamo were protected under the Geneva Conventions—a decision upheld by the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
Obama’s pick to succeed Bellinger as legal adviser, Yale Law Dean Harold Koh, has come under fire from conservative critics who claim he will put international law above domestic interests. Bellinger recently signed a letter on behalf of Koh. “I do think Harold Koh is well qualified and should be confirmed,” he says. “The legal adviser’s office will be in the middle of important national discussions on the law of war, on human rights law, on closing Guanatanamo, and on the international criminal court.”