Exit Interview: John Yoo

The Bush administration lawyer turned Inky columnist talks waterboarding, liberals, and his days at Episcopal Academy

September seemed like an appropriate month to check in with Episcopal Academy’s most infamous graduate: John Yoo, the former Department of Justice lawyer whose memos on torture and warrantless wiretaps shaped President Bush’s post-9/11 policies — and, for his critics, have earned Yoo the title of war criminal. Today, the 42-year-old Inquirer columnist teaches law at Berkeley. In between dodging lawsuits and protests, he found time to chat about his buddy Ann Coulter — and how hard it is to find a good waterboarding joke.

I’m going to record this, if that’s okay. Um, okay. You’re not going to use the tape for anything, though?

Only for transcription purposes. Oh, good. You never know these days what people do with things.

Or who’s recording your phone calls. Exactly.

What kind of kid were you at Episcopal? Nerd? Troublemaker? Voted “Most likely to author internationally controversial memos”? [laughs] I don’t know if I fit into one of the categories in The Breakfast Club. I wasn’t a jock. I definitely wasn’t Judd Nelson. I guess I fell into the nerd category.

Did you know then that you wanted to be a lawyer?
Not really. Episcopal was not very pre-professional. I spent a lot of time learning Latin and ancient Greek. They didn’t even offer economics or political science. It was really old-fashioned education, like the kind you might see on some PBS British miniseries.

You worked with Ann Coulter in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Was she as reasonable and sweet then as she is today? [laughs] I remember her coming into my office and saying, “I’m going to quit and be a full-time pundit.” And I said, “How are you going to make a living off of that?” [laughs] I went to lunch with her, and she wore white gloves that went past the elbow and a fur stole, just to be outrageous.

So she was Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians? [laughs] It was more like she had no trouble drawing attention to herself. I just didn’t know you could make a living of it outside the circus.

How did Brian Tierney approach you to write for the Inquirer? I think the idea came from my Episcopal classmate, Brian’s younger brother, Michael Tierney, who’s a lawyer at Dilworth Paxson. He knew I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times and, somehow, the New York Times. So he said, “Let me send some of your columns to the Inquirer and see if they’d be interested.”

Will Bunch of the Daily News called you “the nation’s leading advocate … for war crimes” and wanted you fired from the newspaper. Here’s your opportunity to say he’s a liberal windbag. I wouldn’t dignify him with that title. I’ve been called many bad things by people over the years. Getting called names is part of being conservative. And look, I live and teach in Berkeley. I’m used to being called names by liberals.

Bunch also said your writing was “dull.” Is that a bigger insult? Judging by the letters I get, I don’t think people find it dull. I guess he must find a lot of newspaper writing dull, which is why the industry he’s in is quickly disappearing from the face of the earth.

Regarding the torture memos, did you ever contemplate the “Jack Bauer defense”? You were so hopped up on episodes of 24 that you just got carried away? I actually never saw 24 until after I left the government. The premise of it seemed so outlandish — that our government could effectively do anything like that in 24 hours.  There is a lot of truth to the idea that people in government have to make decisions that involve terrible choices that don’t occur in peacetime and didn’t occur before 9/11. Once you see the intelligence on the threats, you see that you have to make difficult choices, trading one value against another.

Do you have any regrets? No, I don’t. I did what I thought was the right thing to do. I knew that someday, when the decisions became public, they would be controversial.

Perhaps you regret doing this interview? I actually have a subscription to the magazine. I’ve read a bunch of these. This one seems a bit more serious than the others I’ve read.

I didn’t find the right waterboarding joke. [laughs] I’ve never heard any good ones. I don’t think there are any good ones.