Bill O'Reilly's tortured logic

Discussing waterboarding and warrantless surveillance, the Fox News host couldn't get his facts straight.

Published February 15, 2008 3:26PM (EST)

In his "Talking Points Memo" segment Thursday night, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly delivered an impassioned sermon against Senate Democrats who'd voted against so-called coercive interrogation (O'Reilly called it "coerced interrogation") and an extension of the Protect America Act.

"Twenty-eight Democratic senators have voted against coerced interrogation of captured terror suspects and warrantless surveillance of overseas phone calls made to suspected terrorist locations," O'Reilly said. "That means that these senators want only Army Field Manual interrogation procedures, which would allow only psychological interrogation, and want to ban immediate listening of terrorist communications. Do you" -- and here came a vocal stress and finger point so exaggerated that it was almost self-parody -- "feel safer because of that?"

Even for this veteran O'Reilly viewer, this particular "Talking Points Memo" was amazing, filled as it was with falsehoods, distortions, half-truths, even moments that would have been almost humorous if it were not for O'Reilly's sizable and presumably trusting audience.

When discussing waterboarding, O'Reilly used the famous "ticking time bomb" scenario to justify his support for the method, saying, "The president should have the authority to order waterboarding and other coercive measures in an urgent situation. Psych techniques are fine in the long run, but not when possible death is near."

Had O'Reilly concluded his segment there, that statement would merely have been factually challenged. But at the conclusion of his monologue, O'Reilly said, "The left often lives in a theoretical world, but I live in a real world."

That was just plain ironic.

The "ticking time bomb" scenario is a thought experiment -- it's almost purely theoretical. In fact, in our experience, people who defend torture by citing the scenario never cite a real-world example of its use. (Sometimes the Israeli precedent in relying on the scenario as the only legal justification for torture in that country is cited, but as Flore de Préneuf observed in Salon in 2001, "Palestinian detainees have often testified that interrogations stopped on Fridays and Saturdays, confirming the suspicion that torture had nothing to do with urgency.") And perhaps that's for good reason. Last year, Stuart Herrington, a retired Army colonel who's an expert in interrogation, penned an Op-Ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In it, he wrote, "The so-called ticking time bomb scenario is a Hollywood construct that I never encountered in my 30-year career."

When it came to his discussion of warrantless surveillance, O'Reilly had even more difficulty getting his facts straight. As previously mentioned, at the top of the segment, O'Reilly said, "these senators ... want to ban immediate listening of terrorist communications." Later, he added, "In this high-tech world, if U.S. intel cannot zero in on communications immediately, then crucial intel will be lost. Everybody knows that!"

Indeed, everyone does know that. That's why the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act includes a provision -- unaffected by anything O'Reilly was discussing -- that allows surveillance to begin immediately and without a warrant if an application for one is made within 72 hours.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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