There’s an unfortunate impulse, when you or someone you’re close to does something wrong, to turn the situation around so that you can seem like the victim. That ugly human defense mechanism was on display on ABC‘s nightly newscast for two days running as the network previewed the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program.
The report revealed shocking, even sickening treatment of the intelligence agency’s captives, more than two dozen of whom turned out to have no connection at all to militant groups. But ABC‘s focus (12/7/14) wasn’t on the US government abuses detailed in the report, but “the fear that its release could threaten American lives.”
With a graphic reading “ON ALERT: WILL REPORT PUT AMERICANS IN DANGER?,” correspondent Martha Raddatz told viewers that the report includes “some details never heard before, and many people fearing tonight that revealing them will lead to violence.”
Raddatz makes clear who she expected to become violent: “The Muslim world has erupted many times before when the US and the West have been accused of religious and cultural sleights.”
“Cultural sleights”–perhaps that’s a reference to the report’s revelation that the CIA made “threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee”?
Raddatz’s chief source for the claim that releasing the report would put Americans in danger was House Intelligence chair Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who stated this speculation as fact: “It will in fact incite violence, and it’s likely to cost someone their life.” Raddatz brought Rogers back later in the report to make the case that (in Raddatz’s words) “if this report is released, groups like ISIS will take full advantage.”
The next day (12/8/14), Raddatz was back to warn that “diplomatic and military facilities around the globe are bracing for potential violence targeting Americans.” And not only could the report lead to violence, but Raddatz’s CIA sources suggested that the lack of torture might be dangerous in itself, as “the CIA argues that waterboarding was key…in stopping future plots against America.”
In that report, Raddatz says the report revealed “shocking detail about waterboarding and other interrogation methods the CIA conducted during the dark days after 9/11.” According to the CIA, the Agency’s torture (or “Enhanced Interrogation”) program lasted until December 2007–so that would make it approximately 2,300 dark days after 9/11.
Washington Post Does Not Call It Torture When We Torture
The early report at the Washington Post website about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of CIA torture is gripping, well-documented and sickening. But one thing jumps out: The paper doesn’t use the word “torture” to describe the CIA’s torture program. And that’s not an accident.
The piece by Greg Miller, Adam Goldman and Julie Tate (12/9/14) says the report documents “levels of brutality, dishonesty and seemingly arbitrary violence that at times brought even agency employees to moments of anguish.”
The Post reports that “agency employees subjected detainees to ‘rectal rehydration’ and other painful procedures that were never approved.” It provides considerable detail about the torture of one prisoner, Abu Zubaida. In addition to being “waterboarded 83 times and kept in cramped boxes for nearly 300 hours,” he was subjected to
a round-the-clock interrogation assault — slamming Zubaida against walls, stuffing him into a coffin-sized box and waterboarding him until he coughed, vomited and had “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.”
But the Post only uses the ‘t-word’ once:
The report’s central conclusion is that harsh interrogation measures, deemed torture by program critics including President Obama, didn’t work.
As we noted earlier this year (FAIR Blog, 4/2/14), when the Post presented a sneak peek of the Senate report it also declined to call the torture program torture, preferring an array of euphemisms:
Readers learn about a “brutal interrogation program,” “harsh techniques,” “excruciating interrogation methods,” “brutal measures,” “harsh interrogation techniques,” “coercive techniques,” “previously undisclosed cases of abuse,” “harsh treatment” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
It turns out this is a policy decision. The Post‘s Philip Bump has a piece (12/9/14) about the “old debate” over torture terminology. In the wake of a 2010 Harvard study about how media outlets use the term, some prominent outlets–including the Washington Post–wrestled with how to craft coherent policies:
Most media outlets have tried to figure out where to draw the line. NPR‘s ombudsman addressed it in 2009, outlining the six ways in which use of “torture” was considered by the agency. After the Harvard report was released, media reporter Brian Stelter reached out to Cameron Barr, then ThePost‘s national security editor (He’s now the national editor). “After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious,” Barr said, “we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique.” That continues to be The Post‘s policy; Tuesday’s story about the report’s release doesn’t refer to it as torture — except when citing President Obama.
So the Washington Post will not call something by its name if using that word is thought to be “contentious.” By that standard, the paper in the nation’s capital will never call it torture when the US government does it.
Action Alert 12/10/14
Equal Time for Torturers? Networks grant CIA time to spin report
The December 9 release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture prompted substantial media coverage. But the network newscasts seemed to be guided by the need to apply something like an “equal time” rule for the torturers.
On NBC Nightly News (12/9/14), though correspondent Andrea Mitchell misleadingly referred to “the harsh interrogations now seen as torture”–they were, of course, torture before yesterday–their lead segment adequately summarized the Senate findings.
But then NBC aired a long interview–nearly as long as the report on the Senate’s findings–with former CIA (and NSA) director Michael Hayden, who even disputes that the tactics in the report were torture. Anchor Brian Williams told viewers that Hayden was “accused in today’s report of providing misleading information in the past.”
That’s a mild characterization; in fact, as the Washington Post (12/9/14) showed,Hayden’s 2007 Senate testimony about CIA torture was revealed to be full of distortions and evasions–from the number of prisoners held by the CIA to his claims that “punches and kicks…have never been employed” and that the “most serious injury” was bruising.
The exposure of Hayden’s dishonesty seemed to play no role in NBC‘s questioning of him, in which he was given ample time to argue that most countries treat their prisoners worse than the CIA does.
After its opening segment describing the Senate findings, CBS Evening Newspresented a CIA rebuttal report from correspondent Bob Orr, which was a completely uncritical summary of the Agency’s dubious claims. Orr goes through the cases where the CIA says torture “worked.” He doesn’t challenge the Agency’s claims, which is an especially strange approach given the Senate report’s documentation of how the CIA misled politicians and journalists about its torture program.
But CBS wasn’t done. The newscast also aired an interview with Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director and current CBS News contributor. Pelley made clear that their analyst was “speaking in defense of the CIA.” Morrell called the Senate report “deeply flawed.” Instead of posing tough questions, Pelley asked him questions like this: “How are CIA officers reacting to this today?”
Did we say “equal time”? Between the CIA rebuttal segment and the Morell interview,CBSEvening Newsdevoted about 50 percent more time to excuses for torture than it did to the torture report itself.
And on ABC World News Tonight, correspondent Martha Raddatz showed that you didn’t need to interview a former torture architect to spin the news. Her first words to anchor to David Muir were these: “David, some of these detainees are Al-Qaeda operatives suspected of taking part in the worst terrorist attacks in this country’s history.” That is true; and some of the prisoners had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda at all–or any kind of militant activity.
After Raddatz’s report–which detailed the Senate’s findings–the broadcast turned to Jonathan Karl to flesh out the CIA’s response. As he told viewers, “The tactics were harsh, but the CIA says it is flat out wrong to say they did not work.”
Karl wasn’t there to weigh these claims: “One key question: Did the interrogations help get Osama bin Laden? The report says no, the CIA says yes, that only through harsh interrogation did they discover bin Laden’s personal messenger.”
But no one should take the CIA at its word. As many are pointing out (CNN,12/10/14; Mother Jones, 12/9/14; Firedoglake, 5/3/11), the most important breaks that identified bin Laden’s courier came independent of the CIA’s torture regime, and the arguments that have been offered for waterboarding’s contribution to the search border on the absurd (FAIR Blog, 5/6/11). It’s not surprising the CIA would seize on bin Laden to justify torture; the Senate report notes that two days after bin Laden was killed, Hayden went on a talk radio show to boast that the intelligence came from CIA black sites.
The Senate report makes abundantly clear that the CIA went to great lengths to mislead the press, the public and political leaders about its activities. This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with CIA history. This is not a time for “balance”–unless journalists truly believe that covering torture means giving torturers an uncritical platform for denying responsibility.
ACTION: Tell the networks that good journalism means challenging CIA claims–not giving the Agency free airtime to respond to well-documented evidence of torture.