John Yoo handles Jon Stewart rather well on the issue of interrogation tactics and “torture.” Good discussion.


  1. That was a frustrating discussion if only for that fact that they were arguing two entirely different perspectives (a point that Stewart acknowledges in Part II, but continues apace for the remainder). Yoo is arguing a legal perspective (What Is Allowed) and Stewart is arguing a moral perspective (What Ought to Be Allowed).

    The conversation may have been doomed from the start as Stewart is not a legal thinker and Yoo as much describes himself as not being a moral thinker, but there may have been more value in the discussion if one of them had tried to engage the perspective being argued by his opponent.

    The thing is, it’s perfectly plausible to agree with both of them: with Yoo, that the president is legally given this exceptional degree of power under particular circumstances, and with Stewart, that the president should not use his powers for evil. These men are not in intrinsic disagreement—at least not so far as was revealed in the conversation.

  2. I actually think they could have reached the place you describe, Dane, if it weren’t for this weird inability Stewart has to parse terms. As Yoo tried to point out a couple of times, there’s no real disagreement as to whether a space between Miranda rights and torture exists… everyone acknowledges this fact. The question was regarding the right way to operate within that space.

    That was why it was so ineffectual for Stewart to act like there is some sort of American double standard going on; when real torture is compared to American interrogation techniques, the two concepts are clearly quite different (rather than, as Stewart seemed to think, merely two facets of the same thing).

    Stewart may be right that a president shouldn’t use his powers for evil (not that it’s a particularly insightful statement), but I think he actually managed a giant step backward in any case he may have had that President Bush fit that bill. Rather than making Bush out to be an uncaring torturer who manipulates the law to his own ends (clearly the starting point of his thinking), he managed to reveal a picture of Bush as a president who requested thoughtful legal advice, stayed within the confines of the law, and honored international treaties throughout.

    More than anything, Yoo made the doomsayers and Bush haters look like… well, like just that.

  3. Ben, I think you hit the nail on the head. What was legal (not torturing) is based on moral foundations (torture is wrong). I don’t think Yoo destroyed Stewart or anything like that. Instead, he brought the debate onto a better plain that understands how tough these decisions are and how they aren’t simply torture v. justice and evil v. good. A little nuance on televised political opinion (conservative or liberal) is a good thing.

    Those decisions talked about reinforce why I’m glad I’m not President. That’s one way I do respect President Obama (even where I disagree with him). He didn’t change everything about Bush’s treatment of terrorist captives that he promised to do as a candidate. Why? I think once he got into the White House and had the information President Bush did, he found the world a much more dangerous place. He seemed to wisely modify his actions to accomodate.

  4. From Ben: “Stewart managed to reveal a picture of Bush as a president who honored international treaties throughout.”

    Actually, this was not the picture that I saw painted. Stewart painted the picture of a president and staff who had to make hard decisions and then made them. And that’s as far as he went.

    Yoo didn’t contribute to the picture of a president who honoured treaties either. The way he presented things (despite always qualifying that these are hard decisions), the Bush administration consulted him strictly to know how they could operate within the letter of the international treaties.

    Of course, this makes sense: you don’t consult a lawyer for expert advice on window treatments, the best interpretation of Revelation 1:19, or ethical dilemmas. And Yoo’s task was not an essentially ethical one. At least not in any strict terms (it’s always possible that he could let ethics bias his reading of the laws). So they consulted him on the letter because that was his area of authority. They’d have to look elsewhere for the spirit.

    Which is why the conversation couldn’t really find any resolution.

    The Bush administration had either decided before or after Yoo’s conclusions what they wanted to do or be able to do. And as far as Yoo’s input into the conversation, it doesn’t matter whether they were looking for justification for the degree of torture they wanted to use or whether they looked at his recommendations and built policy from his conclusions. It may matter to us and it may matter to Stewart (in his role as commentator and rabblerouser), but insofar as Yoo commenting from his place of expertise, it’s an issue beyond his concern.

    From Adam: “Yoo brought the debate onto a better plain.”

    Only, I think, insofar as astute viewers would catch that they were arguing different things and could then go: “Oh, this whole time I’ve been arguing with my folks about this, it might just be because we’re talking past each other.” Otherwise, it was a pretty tiresome discussion. I kept demanding of my screen: No no no, start talking to each other instead of around each other. Stop couching your rhetoric in terms you’re comfortable with and start engaging what the other person is saying.

    It was nice, however, that a) Yoo was funny and while on the defensive due to the nature of Stewart’s audience, he rarely appeared defensive, and that b) Stewart ended the discussion amiably (though frustrated) and reiterated that he didn’t care for the easy demonization of those who he disagrees with and plainly can’t understand.

  5. Not 100% sure where you’re going with the last comment, Dane, but insofar as you disagree with me I think you’re wrong. :-)

    My point about Stewart’s “revealing” was merely that he allowed the conversation to go in a direction that brought to light the following facts:

    1. The Bush White House requested clarification on what they could and could not do.

    2. The resulting policies conformed to the legal advice given.

    3. Based on the legal categories and definitions, the Bush White House did not violate the international treaty which Stewart intended to use as a weapon.

    Stewart’s initial supposition seemed to be that Yoo was forced to design legalspeak to get AROUND the legal boundaries, but Yoo showed that instead he was bringing clarification to a gray area WITHIN acceptable boundaries.

    Stewart also tried to use the language of the treaty to show that the Bush White House was either in violation or was creating their own rules, but Yoo showed that the treaty was not speaking to the area which his legal advice (and the resulting interrogation techniques) occupied.

    Stewart’s desire to express disagreement with the moral content of the interrogations was thereby shown to be entirely periphery and without legal merit. If he desired for this to be the cornerstone of the conversation rather than legal questions, he should have a) brought in a conservative expert on morality rather than law, and b) ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT MORAL RATHER THAN LEGAL ISSUES.

    Stewart asked a legal expert who gave legal opinions onto his show. He tried to argue with him about the legal boundaries of interrogation and torture. His questions and evidence were primarily focused on challenging the legality of the Bush White House’s decisions. The fact that he pretty much got pasted in that arena was his own fault.

    This, then, is the beauty of the event in they eyes of those of us who think Stewart is a habitual cherry-picker (though he certainly isn’t in the Maher zone). On playing ground of his choosing, Stewart got beat and the result was that the Bush White House looked a lot more boring and legal than it had previously on this issue. It found plenty of resolution, just not what he had in mind beforehand.

    Maybe he should get Jim Cramer back on his show.

  6. I don’t know if my comment was in disagreement with you or not. I saw the picture emerge that the Bush administration was concerned with staying within a valid interpretation of the treaties’ (treaty’s/treaties’?) guidelines. This didn’t necessarily seem at odds with the picture most people who don’t like White House torture/interrogation technique have of the Bush admin.

    That is to say: I rarely hear concern whether or not the administration broke treaty law. (That’s not to say the opinion isn’t out there, just to say that I don’t hear it from anyone other than the apoplectic.) Instead the common refrain is that the Bush administration, in instituting the kind of “security” protocol used, were acting inhumanely.

    You’re right that Stewart started out wondering about the legal dimension and whether the White House presented their ideas on interrogation techniques and then asked “Can we do this?” or if it were the other way around. If the interview was genuine, his shock at being confronted with a different answer than he expected (and being face-to-face with the charming, human face of the surprising author of techniques that he finds repugnant) threw him off and after that initial answer that was beyond what he expected, he never recovered. And it’s from that point that he seems concerned with questions in the moral sphere (of whether things were humane or not and rights and wrongs and regrets etc.), rarely moving back to the legal sphere.

    As I said before, I didn’t find the interview interesting because of this. Either Stewart should have spent less time being flabbergasted and asking questions to which Yoo wasn’t able to clearly answer because Stewart didn’t ask them well or couch them in a context that would make his change in gears sensible. Or Yoo should have interpreted what Stewart’s issue really was and answered questions with that in mind. One can rarely blame the interviewee when the interviewer drops the ball, so I pin the blame for a less than useful interview on Stewart.

    Still, I think the moral line of questioning would have been more interesting if approached well and honed from the outset. Mostly perhaps because that is the aspect of US interrogation technique that I have the most questions about. Whether Yoo is an ethics authority or not, he does bear some degree of culpability for the good or ill the US government does with the tools he pioneered for it. An exploration of that might have been fruitful.

    My take is that Stewart was ill-prepared for an interview that didn’t go the way he expected. Still, it was cordial enough and obviously wasn’t meant to be one of his more notable hit-pieces (those seem to have lots of video footage to shame the interviewee).

  7. It’s fine if your interest lay elsewhere. I don’t know that arguing about “how far is too far” would have been a more interesting discussion point, though. That’s been hashed and rehashed over and over again in a thousand media contexts, and I doubt whether Stewart had anything to add.

    However, finding out the legal structure behind the decisions that were made and presenting them in a mass market context should carry a lot of weight, because “Bush illegally tortured prisoners of war” is a very common accusation and the media opportunities to investigate that claim have been few and far between.

    Arguing values is extremely hard without very clear ground rules in a world with different philosophical systems and worldviews. Eventually it just becomes an unintelligible mess.

    But the legal world is the realm in which the playing field is level and the rules are clear, and debate can usually come down to a point of common agreement. This makes for a much cleaner, more purposeful, and ultimately more interesting discussion than tossing a couple of “representative” actors with completely different presuppositions into a pit and watching them yell past each other.

    I for one would watch a lot more John Stewart if the conversations focused on helpful debates rather than constant reexpressions of deeply held beliefs.

  8. “Bush illegally tortured prisoners of war” is a very common accusation.

    That may be. It’s just not one I’ve heard. Now the “illegal war” stuff seems much more common. Still neither of those seem all that interesting. No accounting for taste, of course.

    There was one part of the interview that started to go in an interesting direction for me but never really got there. The question of when we (or should we) waive in the name of security the principles that have governed our nation. At least ideally they have (history has enough anecdotes to the contrary). I’m fine with the idea of abandoning the American principle, as I’m aware that there are myriad governmental frameworks that could work as well or better, but the humane treatment of prisoners seems pretty intrinsic to our idealized national identity.

    p.s. I wondered whether John Yoo was thinking, when Stewart brought up Japanese internment: “Uhm, you know I’m Korean, right?”

  9. On a related note, it’s nice to see the ol’ place running like usual! That holiday break made things too quiet around here.

  10. Oh, I should also note that I’m by no means very familiar with Stewart’s M.O. or positions on things. I watch an episode of The Daily Show maybe once a month and mostly just hoping against hope that it will feature John Oliver being awesome.

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