UPDATE: I inadvertently included only the first page of Charles Kaiser’s article. This has been fixed. I have also added his update article at the end.
Wednesday’s New York Times article — on the problems faced by Obama’s transition team as they deal with the repercussions of the rejection of John Brennan as CIA Director — is coming under increasing attack. It is seen by many as one of the most blatant examples of the Times’ marginalizing and trivializing of torture opponents. I have already posted several pieces on this by Spencer Ackerman and Andrew Sullivan. Here are two more by Scott Horton and Charles Kaiser [in the Columbia Journalism Review].
The Gray Lady’s Torture Problem
By Scott Horton
On Wednesday, the New York Times had another psychotic episode. The paper’s editorial page has been an eloquent voice on the national stage regarding torture. But often enough the news it relies upon for its editorials never finds its way into its reporting–and its reporting on the issue is not only consistently left in the dust by its competition (particularly by the Washington Post), but, often enough, is not much more than half-baked gossip. That’s the case with this piece by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane. The story could have grappled with the many subtle and complex policy issues that the incoming administration faces in implementing its no-torture pledge at the CIA. Instead, however, the authors treat us to what sounds suspiciously like an extended pouting session from the camp of John O. Brennan.
Brennan and his friends obviously believe that rejecting him is a slap in the face to all veterans of the war on terror–an absurd proposition that the Times then proceeds to treat as indisputable fact. But the Times’s language is even more revealing. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the Times chokes and sputters and is unable to mouth the word “torture.” As I discovered in studying the paper’s reporting over a period of year, when a neighbor plays his stereo too loudly in the apartment next door, that is “torture.” But when a man is stripped of his clothing, chained to the floor in a short-shackle position, subjected to sleep deprivation and alternating cold and heat, and left to writhe in his own feces and urine—that, in the world of the Times, is just an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Shane and Mazzetti do us one better in this piece. Figures who criticize torture and Brennan’s fitness to be DCI are, we learn, the “left wing of the Democratic Party.” That’s a remarkable characterization for a group that is led by retired generals and admirals, as well as many of the nation’s most prominent religious leaders.
But the most striking thing about the piece is that the authors obviously don’t have a clue about what’s going on inside the Obama transition team. And on that, I extend my congratulations to camp Obama, which is doing a laudable job of keeping its deliberations to itself.
I discuss the piece further with Charles Kaiser at Columbia Journalism Review here.
Update: Senator Feinstein Was Misquoted
But wait: it gets even better. The Times writers were busy yesterday explaining that the key news value of their story was its disclosure that two senators, most notably Californian Diane Feinstein, the incoming chair of the intelligence committee, were backing off the Obama team’s “no torture” pledge. Spencer Ackerman checked the quote attributed to Feinstein in the Times article, and discovered that one key sentence had been hacked off, creating the false impression that Feinstein was opposing the uniform anti-torture approach for which she had voted in the current session. Here’s the text that the Times elided: “my intent is to pass a law that effectively bans torture, complies with all laws and treaties, and provides a single standard across the government.” So when will the Times correct its distorted reporting? And what exactly were Mazzetti and Shane up to with this very bizarre submission?
Above the Fold: Slanting the Torture Story
Everything you won’t learn about torture in The New York Times
By Charles Kaiser
There is a fierce battle going on over what kind of a CIA director Barack Obama should appoint, when he should close the prison camp at Guantanamo, and whether there should be a full scale investigation (and possible prosecution) of the torture advocates in the Bush administration.
If you’ve only been reading The New York Times, you’re probably aware of these battles—but almost everyone you have seen quoted about them has similar points of view. Most of the Times’s sources don’t think that anyone who formulated or acquiesced in the current administration’s torture policies should be excluded as a candidate for CIA director, or prosecuted for possible violations of criminal law.
The story on the front page of Wednesday morning’s New York Times provides the most recent and the most dramatic example of this syndrome. The story, by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, noted that John O. Brennan had withdrawn his name from consideration for CIA director after liberal critics attacked his role in the agency’s interrogation program, even though Brennan characterized himself as a “strong opponent” within the agency of harsh interrogation techniques. Brennan’s characterization was not disputed by anyone else in the story, even though most experts on this subject agree that Brennan acquiesced in everything that the CIA did in this area while he served there.
Brennan’s self-defense was followed by a quote from another ex-CIA man, Mark Lowenthal, who claimed that Brennan’s downfall “sent a message that ‘if you worked in the C.I.A. during the war on terror, you are now tainted,’ and had created anxiety in the ranks of the agency’s clandestine service.”
“I was aghast reading this,” said Scott Horton, a professor of human rights law at Hofstra and a contributing editor at Harper’s, whose blog was instrumental in framing the opposition to Brennan’s appointment. “The Times doesn’t even do a reasonable job of presenting the conflicts—their principal source today was John O. Brennan. They have not reached out to the other side. It looks like Mark and Scott have decided that it’s payback time for a couple of their sources at the agency.”
Horton also disputed the idea that an investigation of agency abuses would “would demoralize the line officers of intelligence and the military.” The people saying that are “very very skillfully pointing to the interrogators as being the targets—because they know they would not be the targets. The people who would be the targets are policy makers like [Cheney chief of staff David] Addington, who have the same ability to attract sympathy from the public as cockroaches. I’m not sure that the early part of the story is going to be so embarrassing to the company. There was push back at the beginning; you had pretty high level opposition and Cheney decided to cram it down, which is why they went to get that Department of Justice memo” authorizing the torture of prisoners.
Horton added that people in the CIA say Brennan is “absolutely correct he wasn’t responsible for shaping this policy; but when he suggests he was a vigorous opponent, they laugh.”
Asked by Full Court Press about Horton’s suspicions that the piece he had co-authored was payback for his sources at the CIA, Mark Mazzetti replied, “What am I going to say to that? It’s like absurd.”
The Times piece also framed the debate as a contest between CIA veterans and the “left flank of the Democratic Party.” But the only opponent to the Bush administration’s torture policy quoted in the piece was retired general Paul D. Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces for the Army in 2003 and 2004.
Eaton, who is one of a group of forty retired admirals and generals opposed to torture, told the Times, “This administration has set a tone problem for the military. We’ve had eight years of undermining good order and discipline.”
I asked Mazzetti if he thought Eaton and his fellow retired generals and admirals regarded themselves part of the “left flank” of the Democratic Party. The Times reporter replied, “I wouldn’t want to comment on that. I think our piece pretty much stands for itself.”
A veteran human rights advocate in Washington explained the press’s dilemma this way:
The people who are doing the transition aren’t talking to anyone. And the people who are talking don’t really know what’s going on. The reporters are under enormous pressure to write stories; so what they inevitably do is go to these people outside of the circle who are either exaggerating their knowledge to make themselves look important, or are advancing an agenda.
(Scott Horton also observed that another piece in the Times Week on Review last Sunday, about how Americans should think about Guantanamo, relied almost exclusively on quotes from supporters of the current administration.)
The piece on the front page of Wednesday’s Times struck me as so unbalanced, I sent this e-mail to four top editors there: “This morning’s torture story on the front page is 1174 words long, of which 147 words are devoted to the anti-torture position, which the reporters writing the story obviously disagree with. I would like to know on what basis you believe this equation meets traditional New York Times standards for fairness and balance.”
Executive editor Bill Keller replied:
Your e-mail is 67 words long, of which zero are devoted to the substance of the story. The story is not a roundup of the debate over the use of torture. It is about the dilemma facing the Obama administration as it seeks a new head of the C.I.A. and tries to decide what level of association with the recent past might disqualify a candidate. One potential choice to head the agency has already withdrawn his name after coming under attack. Now, the piece reports, “Mr. Obama’s search for someone else and his future relationship with the agency are complicated by the tension between his apparent desire to make a clean break with Bush aministration policies he has condemned and concern about alienating an agency with a central role in the campaign against Al Qaeda.” This is a balancing act Obama has not yet resolved, and the article in no way rescribes how he should resolve it…It’s a little unfair to criticize an article for not being some altogether different article you might have written.
Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet told me, “Your take is sort of ridiculous. Your’re reading a point of view on the part of the reporters that is not there. You should read their past stories before jumping to conclusions.”
Since torture is the subject that I have written about more frequently than anything else since I started this blog one year ago, I have indeed read previous stories in the Times about torture, including a particularly egregious one last spring by Scott Shane, which suggested a kind of moral equivalency between opponents and proponents of torture: “Certainly the debate is rich in emotion, with each side claiming the moral heights: You approve torture! You’re coddling terrorists! But the arguments have been scant on science to back them up.”
Then Shane revealed the crucial science which had been ignored in the debate: “…[T]he [Army Field] manual’s inherited wisdom has not been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers. Behavioral economists have dissected decision-making, and academic psychologists have studied political persuasion, but their lessons have not informed the interrogator’s art either.” (I told Baquet that this was one of the oddest observations I had ever read in a newspaper.)
In that same piece, Shane also quoted Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime defender of the Bush Administration: “We don’t have any idea — other than anecdote or moral philosophy — what really works.”
That is flatly false.
The one story on this subject that should be required reading for everyone is the piece by a former senior interrogator in Iraq in last Sunday’s Outlook section of The Washington Post, entitled “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq.”
Like every one of those retired generals and admirals who has fought against the current administration’s torture policies, the author of the Post piece DOES know what works:
I taught the members of my unit a new methodology — one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they’re listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of “ruses and trickery”). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi. Over the course of this renaissance in interrogation tactics, our attitudes changed. We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money. I pointed this out to Gen. George Casey, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, when he visited my prison in the summer of 2006. He did not respond.
This piece also includes the best description anywhere of the immorality—and absolute counter-productivity—of the single worst policy in which the United States has engaged since it annihilated most of the Native American population in the 18th and 19th centuries:
Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there’s the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives. I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me – unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.
Those are the words Barack Obama needs to remember—and those are the ideas and the facts that you have not read in The New York Times.
Charles Kaiser’s follow-up:
Above the Fold: Sins of Omission
NYT strategically chops Sen. Feinstein’s statement on torture
By Charles Kaiser
Yesterday, FCP focused on a New York Times story about Barack Obama’s search for a new CIA director. Top candidate John O. Brennan had removed himself from consideration for the post after being accused of complicity in the policy which allowed the torturing of prisoners by CIA agents.
I attacked the story because I thought I thought it read like a press release written by past and present CIA officials, determined to head off an investigation of torture abuses.
When I interviewed Mark Mazzetti, who wrote the Times piece with Scott Shane, I told him that one reason the piece struck me as deficient was that it barely balanced the views of the CIA officials it quoted. Mazzetti replied by pointing to the middle section of the story: “We quoted two leading Democratic senators who, we were interested to hear, that they professed some—you know—a degree of flexibility on this subject. Not flexibility—they seem to take a different stance, or a slightly more nuanced stance than they had over the past year—so we quoted both of them.”
The senators were Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California—but it turns out that Feinstein is not as flexible as the Times indicated. This was what was presented in yesterday’s story as evidence of Senator Feinstein’s new “flexibility” toward allowing torture in interrogations:
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will take over as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, led the fight this year to force the C.I.A. to follow military interrogation rules. Her bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush. But in an interview on Tuesday, Mrs. Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility. “I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures. Afterward, however, Mrs. Feinstein issued a statement saying: “The law must reflect a single clear standard across the government, and right now, the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual. I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new administration to consider them.
But that wasn’t everything Feinstein told the Times. Spencer Ackerman reported today in The Washington Independent that the Times omitted the final sentence in the statement Feinstein issued—a sentence which alters the thrust of her remarks quite dramatically:
“However,” Feinstein said, “my intent is to pass a law that effectively bans torture, complies with all laws and treaties, and provides a single standard across the government.”
A spokesman for Feinstein told FCP today that the senator is now demanding a “clarification” from the Times to learn why that sentence was omitted.
Harper’s contributing editor Scott Horton, who has blogged extensively on this subject, said this about the Times’s omission: “I think this disclosure only serves to underscore the overarching question about this piece. What was the news purpose of this piece? It seems to have been the vehicle for manufactured or false news.”
FCP queried executive editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet, standards editor Craig Whitney, and reporters Mazzetti and Shane about who had made the decision to distort the senator’s remarks by omitting that sentence. FCP also asked if there would be an editor’s note in tomorrow’s paper explaining what had happened. So far, only Whitney has responded, saying he would “find out” if there would be an editor’s note tomorrow, “but it might take longer than that….”
A former top editor of the Times told FCP today that the error required a corrective story, not just an editor’s note. FCP is quite sure about what would happen to the editor or reporter responsible for distorting Feinstein’s position if his former boss, the late Abe Rosenthal, were still the executive editor of The New York Times.
That person would be fired.
Postscript: Scott Shane called FCP after this was posted and said he didn’t see how the omission of that sentence changed the meaning of Feinstein’s statement. Which led to this exchange:
FCP: Why did you leave it out?Shane: Well, we left out tons of things. She talked for a long, long time.
FCP: Well, the trouble with leaving out this sentence is that it makes your whole story look phony. And I’m sorry that you don’t understand that.
Shane: Well, you guys are all dicing and slicing this story in various ways. But a couple of your blogging colleagues read it the other way, and said that the last sentence reinforces…
FCP: They’re entitled to their opinion, and you’re entitled to yours.
December 4th, 2008