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Posted by on Jan 13, 2010 in Arts & Entertainment, Politics | 60 comments

Jon on John, Stewart on Yoo

Jon Stewart apparently felt the sting of critics of his Monday night interview (here and here) of John Yoo, who authored many of the Bush administration’s torture memos while serving as deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel.

In the opening to last night’s show, Stewart essentially cops to the critique, “I was going to nail him… It was like interviewing sand… He got me. You know, I’ll bounce back. I’ve certainly done worse.”

Kevin Drum says Stewart was woefully unprepared:

Yoo’s argument was, plainly, about what counts as torture. Stewart didn’t get that — or pretended not to get that, I’m not sure which — and that led him to continually act surprised by perfectly ordinary statements from Yoo. […]

The real problem with interviewing Yoo is this: once you start arguing about the legal basis of the president’s wartime powers you’ve pretty much lost the game. That’s a subject that’s genuinely complex, and a guy like Stewart will never win an argument about that with a guy like Yoo. He’ll just toss out yet another precedent and plow on.

The debate really needed to be about the fundamentals: Stewart needed to graphically describe all the things that were done — multiple waterboardings, sleep deprivation, head slamming, stress positions, etc. — and get Yoo to defend those as permissible. And when he retreated into legalisms, he should have asked Yoo whether he, personally, agreed with his own legal position. That’s a fair question for an author on a book tour.

Adam Serwer at The Prospect details the mistakes:

Stewart allowed Yoo to claim that Abu Zubayda was the “number 3 in al-Qaeda,” a claim which is factually untrue. Yoo claimed that his memos allowed the government to “go up to the line” of what was torture, but in practice with Zubayda and others the line was crossed repeatedly. The experiences of the detainees who were shackled, in stress positions, had their head thrown into walls, and were doused with cold water were far different than the sanitized, clinical descriptions in the memos. He never asked Yoo whether he thought Zubayda being stuffed in a box to the point that his gunshot wounds reopened was “well beyond the line.” Stewart allowed Yoo to claim the U.S. had never really considered what is and isn’t torture, despite the fact that the U.S. statute against torture was very clearly violated by Yoo’s recommendations and that waterboarding had been prosecuted as a crime as recently as 1983.

Stewart never confronted Yoo on the question of how the torture regime, reverse engineered from training meant to help soldiers resist torture, could possibly not be torture. Stewart never even contested the idea that torture was effective, despite the high-profile declaration of FBI Interrogator Ali Soufan that he personally extracted all of the useful information from Zubayda prior to his being tortured. When Stewart asked Yoo whether the president could electrify someone’s testicles, Yoo knew how to answer the question — having previously implied that it would be okay for the president to order a child’s testicles crushed because, “it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that.” This time he shook his head. No, no, never something so barbaric.

Stewart allowed Yoo to maintain the illusion that he was a good faith actor simply doing his job, rather than someone who had deliberately distorted the facts in order to justify the unjustifiable. After being outmaneuvered for nearly 30 minutes, Stewart grudgingly admitted that he was “not very equipped to handle the discussion.” It was a sobering reminder that for years, a mostly pliant press has allowed a comedian to do a reporters’ job. Yesterday, we were reminded how inadequate a solution that really is.

Serwer points to Spencer Ackerman for more. Ezra Klein called it a predictable shuddering disappointment:

[H]is guests come armed to rebut, and they have more experience defending themselves than Stewart has attacking them. At this point, Stewart is doing more harm than good by giving people whom he thinks are liars and frauds a platform on his show.

Andrew Sullivan has a bit of a different take:

[Yoo’s] conservative defense of an executive branch with no limits to its powers at home or abroad is, well, as gob-smacking as it always has been. It is not, of course, a conservative argument at all. In its implications – in a war defined as unending and an executive defined as all-powerful – are proto-fascist: Jacksonianism with a waterboard.

I came away from the exchange, wondering if Yoo just isn’t that smart, as well as shockingly ignorant of history, and morality. Maybe he was off his game.