Tuesday, January 12, 2010

John Yoo Interview on the Daily Show

I watched the Daily Show last night, as I am wont to do, and they had an interview with the notorious John Yoo, author of some of the memos that authorized torture enhanced interrogation techniques. It was good, but edited down for time. Fortunately, they posted the whole thing online. I've embedded the first video at the bottom of this post (and links to the other 2 extended portions, because they're kind of hard to find), but before that, my thoughts (since you care so much about those).

First, the good. The fact that this interview happened is very good. I don't watch mainstream news shows (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc) because I hate all the fluff and I can read the NY Times and BBC and whatever other news and blogs I want online, saving time and avoiding thousands of stories about Tiger Woods (or whoever the most recent pointless celebrity scandal/death/flop/fad is), but my point is that as far as I know, the mainstream news networks aren't getting these kinds of interviews. And when they do, they're not putting any journalistic pressure on the interviewees, just accepting their answers at face value. Stewart said things like "Well that's not true" and posed difficult questions and followed up. I especially liked how he challenged Yoo on the 9-11 attacks being unprecedented; he brought up the good point that while they were unprecedented in scope, in their nature they were terrorism, something we've faced (off and on) for at least a century, more depending on your definition. And in the extended interview, Stewart got to ask him about the problematic aspects of having an ill-defined (and unlikely to ever end) "War on Terror" when that is the reason for expanded presidential powers, something I was dying for him to ask during the edited interview but got left out.

On the negative side, Stewart wasn't as prepared as he should have been, and he admitted and apologized for as much. He really should have brought up the times that the US has tried both our enemies and our own soldiers for waterboarding (see this great Washington Post op-ed, Waterboarding Used to Be a Crime) when Yoo claimed that there was no precedent at all for exactly what torture is--either a bald-faced lie or the sign of major ignorance in someone who should have known better. Sleep-deprivation, stress positions, and threats of imminent death have also been widely condemned by the US press and even our State Department as torture when we weren't the ones doing them. There has also been case law internationally that has explored what is and isn't torture; while that isn't necessarily binding as precedent on US courts, other nation's laws are often cited by our federal courts as background on cases in which we are breaking new domestic ground. Yoo completely ignored all of this, and Stewart should have brought up these specifics. Along these lines, Stewart didn't seem to grasp for a long time one of Yoo's first (and relatively valid) points that there are some things that the CIA has authority to do that go beyond regular domestic law enforcement tactics but stop short of torture. Stewart also sometimes asked long, complicated questions, and then barely gave Yoo any time to respond, interrupting him again. I know he's more of an entertainer than newscaster, but especially when you know you're doing an extended interview (it lasted about 25 minutes altogether) you should know you have the time to
allow more dialogue and explanation, especially when you're the only real interview that Yoo is going through.

For Yoo's part, I felt like he was very evasive in his answers. He wouldn't give a straight answer about how and why people didn't like him, about what he was asked by the Bush administration to do, or why enhanced interrogation techniques were really ok. (This might be one of the reasons Stewart felt the need to interrupt him at times.) However, as Stewart said to Yoo at one point during the extended interview, "You're the most charming torture author I've ever met!" Yoo was articulate about many of his views on expansive executive power, among other things; he's clearly a very bright man and affable, he makes a good impression on people. Too bad he was behind such terrible legal opinions.

Overall I think it was a very good and important interview, though Stewart's interviewing skills could have been better and Yoo could have been more forthright. But as Stewart very well said at the end of the extended interview, it's too easy to caricature the opposition as evil and not sit down and actually talk about things with them. I'm glad he did a good job of having some real, honest discussion with a very controversial figure. It also made me excited to go to law school in the fall so that I'll be more equipped myself to understand, critique, and support the arguments used in these debates.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show: Exclusive - John Yoo Extended Interview Pt. 1
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Part 2 (extended)

Part 3 (extended)


  1. "As far as I know, the mainstream news networks aren't getting these kinds of interviews."

    You should watch the Rachel Maddow show. As often as she can get people to come on the show she has very civil, and yet very intense interviews. Given her background as you might expect, she does a better job than Stewart in the interviews. Granted, given Stewart's background, it's no wonder that people like Yoo are more likely to go to an interview with him than with Maddow.

    I share your praise for Stewart and liked your assessment of the interview.

  2. I have heard very good things about Rachel Maddow but I've never actually seen her show. I'll get right on it, thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Austin. I haven't been following the torture debate very closely and the interview accompanied by your comments were informative. Gracias, Señor.