As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

He Said He Tortures, She Said He Tortures

I've said in the past that the moment we start having a debate about torture, the moment we allow it into civilized conversation and the "he said/she said" format of contemporary politics, we've lost that debate. Nevertheless, we can look at the polls and divine that a slim majority would like to see investigations of Bush-era torture practices. It would have been higher if they actually used the word torture instead of "harsh interrogation technqiues", or described the techniques in a legitimate fashion. And of course, this is why the fact of the debate distorts the debate. Dick Cheney blustered and talked about how effective it was to waterboard prisoners and avoided the word torture, and the polls are taken with an eye toward that and an effort to be "fair." But there's nothing to be fair about, no reason to neuter the language. As Will Bunch puts it, torture is not about "winning the afternoon."

I know this must be hard for the editors at the Politico to fathom, but there are actually some stories that come down the pike that are more important, and more complicated, than "winning the morning" or "winning the afternoon." The growing drumbeat of revelations about the torture of prisoners in American custody -- in a scheme that was cooked up and then rationalized at the highest levels of our government -- is nothing less than a moral test of who we are as a nation and where we want go from here. It doesn't lend itself to cute little "up" and "down" arrows, to dueling cable shouters "on the right" and "on the left," to all the little devices we in the media use to equate American politics on the soundbite level of sports' "Pardon the Interruption." [...]

Almost every flaw of our craft has been on display in the last week or two -- the pleading for a middle-of-the-road answer to a problem where there is no middle ground, the phony "he said, she said" journalism that gives a 50 percent voice to the advocates of American-bred torture, the use of unnecessary anonymous quotes to defend the indefensible, the need for an elite inside-the-Beltway clique to circle the wagons, to insist that aggressive prosecution is only for the crimes that "regular people" commit.

What a shame. Although it is tragic that we must be talking about something like torture in the United States of America in 2009, this issue does offer modern journalism a chance to do something we have not done in at least a generation -- and that is to provide this nation, our readers and viewers, with moral clarity and leadership. There is still time to show that we've learned something from the fiasco of pre-Iraq war journalism, when a lack of aggressive reporting and a kowtowing to authority made us a co-conspirator in one major step into the abyss, when we launched a "pre-emptive war" against a nation not capable of attacking us. Now, there is no reason why every journalistic voice in this country can say it as simply as Fox News Channel's Shepherd Smith, that "we are America, we do not (expletive deleted) torture." Why not? I don't know any journalist who thinks there are two sides to freedom of the press, so why should freedom from torture be any different?

Perhaps the biggest failure in the torture "debate" occurred over a year ago, when ABC debased themselves by taking the views of a CIA agent at face value, statements that have now been utterly debunked. Good for the New York Times to dredge it up.

In late 2007, there was the first crack of daylight into the government’s use of waterboarding during interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees. On Dec. 10, John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer who had participated in the capture of the suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002, appeared on ABC News to say that while he considered waterboarding a form of torture, the technique worked and yielded results very quickly.

Mr. Zubaydah started to cooperate after being waterboarded for “probably 30, 35 seconds,” Mr. Kiriakou told the ABC reporter Brian Ross. “From that day on he answered every question.”

His claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah “at least 83 times.”

Some critics say that the now-discredited information shared by Mr. Kiriakou and other sources heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique. “I think it was sanitized by the way it was described” in press accounts, said John Sifton, a former lawyer for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.

There's no question about it. Kiriakou came out of central casting, a Jack Bauer-lite telling conservatives what they wanted to hear. He never carried out waterboarding, he never set foot in a secret CIA prison. But he became the poster boy, and Brian Ross never thought to challenge him on his statements. Kiriakou later ended up working for ABC. And Ross literally says in this story, "I didn’t give enough credit to the fiendishness of the C.I.A.”

As Glennzilla notes, Kiriakou and Ross' lies zinged around conservative media, despite the lack of evidence. And that shaped the "debate". A debate we should never be having. A debate based on falsehoods and false premises. A debate which is hurting our standing in the world.

More fallout from the torture "debate" - you get moronic polemicists criticizing the media for doing their job.

Scarborough has since apologized. But that doesn't matter. It's out there now.

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