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"Not Well for Anyone"

Larry Siems,
The Torture Report
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January 13, 2010

On Monday night, John Yoo, a lawyer in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice, appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In April 2008, Yoo’s now-infamous torture memo was released to the public in response to the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Larry Siems, author of The Torture Report, responds to the interview.

For me, the one astonishingly honest moment of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show interview with John Yoo two nights ago, a moment that didn’t make it into the televised version, came about 2 1/2 minutes in, when Stewart, in his way, first raises the subject of the legal memos Yoo authored.

“I read the briefs that you wrote on torture —” he begins. “And by the way, I didn’t finish them, so don’t tell me how it ends.”

Yoo laughs for a second, and then grows serious, leans forward, and says emphatically, “Not well for anyone.”

If Stewart had just stopped right there and pressed Yoo to unpack that remarkable admission, we might have watched a significant landmark on the road to accountability.

“That’s interesting,” he might have said. “Not well for anyone. Let’s explore that. You’re saying, not well for those we tortured. Not well for the torturers. Not well for those who authorized or rationalized the torture. Not well for you. Not well for those who came after you, and for those now struggling with how to prosecute cases tainted by torture. Not well for me. Not well for your fellow citizens here in the studio. Not well for the country. Not well for anyone on earth.


“Wow. Great. I tell you what: let’s forget these note cards and just spend the next half hour talking about that.”

Instead, Yoo, and the conversation, quickly retreated onto his turf, a mixture of musings on the vast elasticity of presidential powers and a fact-discredited narrative that “we had amazingly captured the number three guy in al-Qaeda, which is an amazing coup” and “the guy was resistant to interrogation.” Stewart, who at the outset conceded the argument on legal questions, saying he found the constitutional questions “gobblety-gook,” never challenged that narrative, and never brought the conversation back down to that early, startlingly human level.

The fact is, “not well for anyone” is the way torture and abuse always ends. Admitting that this is how it has ended in America’s post-9/11 experiments with torture is a huge step, and Stewart should’ve just let Yoo, who leaned forward to say this, actually take it.