On the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Viet Dinh, one of the lead architects of the controversial Patriot Act, was standing in his Washington, D.C., office, waxing poetic about Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
“Justice O’Connor, I love her so much,” the 38-year-old law professor said. “I love her so much. She’s the best.”
As if to return the compliment, her image, in the form of a photo portrait signed to her former clerk “with respect and affection,” smiled back at him.
Hugs all around!
Only the night before, Mr. Dinh had participated in Ted Koppel’s live town-hall meeting on “The Price of Security,” and when the show ended and the cameras were still rolling, Mr. Dinh embraced a man who looked strangely like Lanny Davis, President Clinton’s special counsel. Was it?
“I may have hugged Lanny Davis,” Mr. Dinh said.
(Editor’s note: After press time, Mr. Davis called The Observer. "I met Mr. Dinh that night for the first time, and we had a perfectly nice exchange," he said. "But we certainly didn’t exchange any physical affection.")
Mr. Dinh, an avid and nonpartisan hugger, can perhaps be forgiven for his foggy recollection.
“I always hug [conservative lawyer] Ted Olson and [ACLU executive director] Anthony Romero,” he said.
The lawyerly sensation of the nation’s capital has certainly earned the affection of Clinton family enemies—as when he served on Alphonse D’Amato’s Whitewater Committee, or later on Senator Pete Domenici’s impeachment-trial squad.
In a town like Washington, it scarcely needs saying, everyone’s in the game together, no matter what side of the aisle. But few have made themselves so prodigiously amiable as Mr. Dinh, even while engaging in hazardous work like helping to impeach popular Presidents and author government wiretap policies.
“I do what I do, I say what I say, I think what I think, and I leave the labeling to others,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a fellow traveler or an ideologue or a rubber-stamper. Or a renegade.”
In fact, there is a label for Mr. Dinh. In Washington, people who see Mr. Dinh’s ebullient, easy demeanor as opportunistic politicking have coined it “Viet Spin.”
Here, possibly, is an example of Viet Spin at work: Mr. Dinh is making headlines these days representing venture capitalist Tom Perkins, the former Hewlett-Packard board member whose outrage over the methods used to uncover a leaker on the company’s board triggered a full-blown scandal at the company.
Just as aggressively as he argued that the government could use wiretaps to root out terrorists, he is now arguing that the company overstepped its bounds in allowing unethical and possibly illegal techniques to be used to obtain board members’ phone records.
“I guess my expertise in national security and electronic surveillance and the U.S.A. Patriot act helped me very easily to recognize the legality or propriety of certain investigative techniques,” said Mr. Dinh.
At issue at Hewlett-Packard is the use of “pretexting”—the technique whereby investigators pose as clients of a phone service, providing Social Security numbers and the like, in order to obtain phone records. The phone records of Mr. Perkins, other board members and journalists who were the recipients of the leaks were accessed, the company has disclosed. On Tuesday, chairwoman Patricia Dunn—who had called for the investigation but says she was unaware of the methods used—was stripped of her title and replaced by company chief executive Mark Hurd, though Ms. Dunn will remain on the board.
“I asked Tom whether he had given consent, and he said no,” Mr. Dinh said. “Even without knowing the method of the investigation, having been around this town and having seen and participated in a lot of leak investigations, you know, these are not easy things to do even when you have full subpoena and search-warrant power.”
Traveling on his boat in the Mediterranean, Mr. Perkins could not be reached for comment, but he released a statement over the weekend calling for Ms. Dunn’s resignation.
MR. DINH WAS 10 YEARS OLD when he fled Saigon in 1978, part of a wave of “boat people” who were fleeing communist rule. His father, a city councilman, had been sent to a re-education camp. Mr. Dinh, his mother and five siblings left on a small fishing boat, on which they spent 12 days without food and water. They finally docked in Malaysia. Mr. Dinh’s mother quickly realized that the Malaysians would probably send them right back out to sea, so that night she hacked at the boat with an ax to destroy its seaworthiness.
After some months in a refugee camp, the Dinhs were sent to Portland, Ore. The family picked strawberries for menial wages, but when Mount St. Helens erupted, the crop damage was so severe that the family relocated to Fullerton in Southern California. There, Mr. Dinh worked alongside his mother in a sewing shop and flipped burgers after school. He earned a scholarship to Harvard and then attended Harvard Law School.
His public profile rose steadily from there. He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 1992 on his sister’s struggle to enter the United States, and his odyssey was described by Times columnist Anthony Lewis the following year as an inspiring counter-example to those concerned about “the immigrant threat.”
After law school, he clerked for Judge Laurence Silberman, a Reagan appointee, whose alumni network of mostly conservative lawyers form a tight clique. The next year, he clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor.
After clerking, he settled in Washington, but not before interviewing with News Corp. C.E.O. Rupert Murdoch and his then general counsel, Arthur Siskind. They recommended that he pursue an opportunity at their newest acquisition, the Hong Kong–based Star TV, but Mr. Dinh said he didn’t have the “Asia bug.”
Instead, he planted his roots in D.C., where President Bill Clinton was target practice for conservatives young and old. After a tour on the Whitewater and impeachment units, in 1996 he joined the faculty at Georgetown Law Center, and was granted tenure in 1999.
During the 2000 election’s recount battle, Mr. Dinh filed an amicus brief on behalf of Bush supporters, and in 2001 the President’s transition team came calling. Mr. Dinh expressed interest in what would come to be renamed the Office of Legal Policy, then considered a backwater whose jurisdiction was limited to the selection of judges. He recalled his interview with John Ashcroft.
“The only thing I have are ideas. I have half-baked ideas, I have quarter-baked ideas, and I have fully baked ideas. And then I have this little file,” he recalled saying. “It’s the crazy-ideas file.”
Mr. Ashcroft responded enthusiastically, and Mr. Dinh reconstructed his bons mots: “The art of leadership is the redefinition of the possible,” Mr. Dinh remembered him saying.
“I said, ‘Ahhhhh,’” Mr. Dinh recalled, throwing his hand up in the air and sliding halfway off his chair.
Senator Clinton was the lone dissenter at his confirmation as assistant attorney general.
Though best known for his legal policy expertise, his academic contributions are in the disparate domains of constitutional interpretation, corporate governance and international law.
“Viet is ambient in town; He is everywhere,” chirped Juleanna Glover Weiss, the lobbyist and Washington doyenne.
Bancroft Associates, Mr. Dinh’s consulting boutique, is a rare venture for most law professors—particularly one as young as him. On Georgetown’s faculty, Martin Ginsburg, tax-scholar eminence and husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is of counsel to Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, but even that more typical arrangement is the exception rather than the rule.
“In a town that is largely filled with policy folks or lawyers at law firms, he inhabits a really different realm, which is one of being an academic who also happens to be a really excellent lawyer,” said Neal Katyal, a friend and Georgetown colleague of Mr. Dinh’s. “There aren’t many people in that orbit.”
Mr. Dinh had been in charge of the Office of Legal Policy for four and a half months when the four airplanes were hijacked on Sept. 11.
For the next six weeks, Mr. Dinh and his colleagues worked—sometimes through the night—with Congress, the White House, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. on the U.S.A. Patriot Act, a statute that gave law enforcement an enriched set of powers. The law lowered barriers between law enforcement and intelligence agents; made it easier for the government to tap phones, monitor Internet transactions, and search and collect records and data; and eased the requirements for warrants in some cases.
While Mr. Dinh’s time in the government provided the administration with a lot of intellectual muscle for the war on terror, after he left the government, Mr. Dinh raised a few loyalists’ eyebrows. People read deeply into his criticism of the administration’s handling of the Padilla case, in which he called the administration’s lack of a policy regarding the detention of U.S. citizens accused of terrorist activities “unsustainable.” To some, this was a sign of independence and credibility; others called it opportunism.
“Part law-school professor, part political pit bull” was how the Los Angeles Times described Mr. Dinh in 2002.
Compared with some of the other smart conservative lawyers from the President’s first term, Mr. Dinh emerged almost suspiciously untarred. Namely, he avoided any association with the ugly internal debates over the sanctioning of torture now synonymous with another young law professor, Berkeley’s John Yoo.
While some view Mr. Dinh’s knack for coming off well as a sign of his political acuity—he is frequently fingered as a possible Supreme Court nominee in some future Republican administration—others see evidence of his entrepreneurialism.
It’s easy to detect a little reverse snobbery in the comments that friends and acquaintances make about Mr. Dinh’s attraction to the good life. There’s the persistent rumor that he had a car and driver. (Mr. Dinh claims that he only occasionally hitched rides with a courier that Bancroft hired for a period who used his car.)
Washingtonian magazine reported this month that Mr. Dinh and his wife, lawyer Jennifer Ashworth Dinh, sold their five-bedroom Beaux-Arts townhouse in Kalorama to World Bank lawyer Philippe Benoit for $1,950,000. They have moved to a three-bedroom house in Alexandria, Va.
Fancy houses, and fancy friends: At a press retreat to discuss national-security issues, which Mr. Dinh attended after he had left the administration, he met Mr. Murdoch’s oldest son, Lachlan.
“We just kept on talking about what I was doing and the like,” Mr. Dinh explained. Soon Mr. Dinh was being introduced, and then elected, to News Corp.’s board.
It was on the News Corp. board that Mr. Dinh met Mr. Perkins, and it was at the News Corp. board meeting in London earlier this summer that Mr. Perkins asked for his opinion on Hewlett-Packard’s unauthorized access of its board members’ phone records.
And the relationship with News Corp. and its friends remains strong. On Wednesday, Mr. Dinh is flying to Sydney to attend the baptism of Lachlan Murdoch’s second son, Aidan, his godson.
“He couldn’t find any other Catholics,” joked Mr. Dinh. “You can put that in.”