Friday, June 27, 2008

Q: Do you know? A: I don't know.

I might have some advice for John Yoo. One exchange between Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties) and Yoo (Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General) from yesterday's hearing on detainee interrogation:

Nadler: The question is not "would an American president order such terrible things" but "could he legally do so?"

Yoo: Let me -- sir it's -- I think it's an -- it's not fair to ask that question without any kind of facts -- any kind of --. I mean you're asking me to state some kind of broad

Nadler: So in other words-- so in other words -- so in other words there is nothing conceivable..

Yoo: No sir I'm not saying...

Nadler: No no let me finish the question because you don't know what I'm going to ask. There is nothing conceiveable that -- to which you could answer 'No, an American president could not order that' without knowing facts and context?

Yoo: Sir I told you I don't agree to that because you are trying to put words in my mouth about --tr-- attempting to get me to answer some broad question covering all circumstances. And I can't do that. I don't like the way you're characterizing my answer.

Nadler's question has so many semantically additive negations that it is difficult to understand exactly what he's asking. It's possible to figure it out but those negatives keep switching directions (yet another argument in favor of negative concord).

Yoo could easily and convincingly say that he doesn't even understand what he would be saying with either a 'yes' or 'no' answer. And Mr Nadler has shown that he's either unable or unwilling to simplify the question or shorten that stack of negatives.

But Mr Yoo rejects the question by saying that it is there are too many variables that he cannot anticipate that might or might not limit the President's options. And since he doesn't know which way these undefined facts would go he's unwilling to say that the facts might go in either direction. So there's our answer.

Hypothetical Questioner and Responder:

Q: Do you know if there are doodads in that box?
R: I don't know what doodads are.
Q: So you're not willing to deny that there is no vacancy of doodads in that box?
R: What?
Q: Can you imagine that if you found out what a doodad is that you might know if there are any in that box?
R: I can't tell you that because I don't know what a doodad might be.
Q: Is there any possibility that a doodad might be the type of thing that fits in that box?
R: I can't tell you that because I don't know what doodads are.

Within the refusal to say that a doodad could not be any one thing the Responder is insisting that a doodad could be anything.

So Yoo's refusal to comment is a refusal to rule out even a hypothetical horrendous interrogation technique.

Mr Nadler could have avoided so many variables in his question. Each of the following could lead to a simple follow-up.
  • Do you know of any interrogation technique short of murder that can always be ruled out?
  • Is it true that given the right facts the President has unlimited freedom to order any form of torture?

But we all know how easy it is to simply avoid a yes or no answer. How many times did Tim Russert ask Will you rule out the possibility of running for president? only to be told I'm happy where I am. No matter how many times he pushed them saying that's not what I asked the eely politicians played dumb. They're geniuses at that.


  1. I don't find it very hard to understand.

    There is nothing (I could name) to which you would say "No. The president cannot order that."

    This means "You think the president can do anything" and Yoo is refusing to answer that. Because the minute he says, oh for instance, "Yes, the president cannot order you to feed a prisoner his own baby" then he's opened the door to all sorts of things. He's better off refusing to answer, since his position is that Yes, there are indeed horrible things the president can order. He doesn't want to get into spelling them out.

  2. I don't know what doodads are -- is that relevant to this conversation?

  3. It's not very hard to understand but it does require more attention that a simple "Is there anything he could never do?"

    Yeah I'm a little slower than most.

    My main point however is that Yoo does understand and he actually answers the question without intending to. He can't say that there is any off-limits technique. For whatever reason he gives us --because he doesn't know of a technique or is unwilling to mention the technique-- he can't name a single technique that Bush could not possibly justify.

    Casey: is it at all possible that you do know what a doodad is?


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