Salon Radio: Scott Horton

Did PBS (and Jay Rockefeller's wife) block the broadcast of a documentary linking torture to the Bush administration? And what role did Bill Kristol play in Sarah Palin's selection?

By Glenn Greenwald
Published October 15, 2008 10:29PM (EDT)

Scott Horton is an international human rights lawyer, an adjunct Professor at Columbia Law School, and a contributor at Harper's.  Scott is my guest today on Salon Radio to discuss two articles he wrote in the last week -- this one, concerning the efforts by PBS to block the broadcast of a new documentary linking the highest levels of the Bush administration to America's torture regime (including the central role played by Sharon Percy Rockefeller -- CEO of Washington's PBS affiliate and wife of key torture-enabler Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller -- in blocking the broadcast); and this one, on the key role played by Bill Kristol and The Weekly Standard in ensuring Sarah Palin's selection as Vice Presidential candidate.

The discussion is roughly 20 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  The transcript is here.  The transcript for the last show, with the ACLU's Jonathan Hafetz on the Guantanamo cases, is now posted here.

This interview can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below:


Glenn Greenwald: My guest today is Scott Horton, who is an international human rights lawyer in New York, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, and a contributor to Harper's. And Scott has a couple of pieces in The Daily Beast, the new online publication from Tina Brown and others that are very interesting, and we're going to discuss today. Scott, welcome; thanks for joining me.

Scott Horton: Thank you. I'm also a visiting professor this semester at Hofstra Law School. The presidential debates are occurring there tomorrow.

GG: Add that to the list then. I want to begin a discussion of the piece that you have out, the more recent one, regarding a documentary that was produced for PBS's Frontline, concerning Guantanamo and the Bush administration's torture regime, and there are some events that suggest quite strongly that PBS is blocking publication or broadcast of that show until after the Bush administration is out of office. I want to talk about the circumstances surrounding that effort by PBS in just a minute, but first, can you describe what this documentary is, who has produced it, and what revelations it offers that aren't previously know?

SH: Well, Sherry Jones, who's received both the Dupont award and an Emmy for her work, and is a leading documentary film producer, put this together. And it's largely an inside the administration look at the evolution of highly coercive interrogation policy. So, it's covering ground that is somewhat similar to the Oscar award winning film Taxi to the Dark Side, and it's got some very dramatic footage in it. Amongst other things, you've got Richard Armitage, who was the number two at the State Department under Colin Powell, describing how he himself was waterboarded, saying that there really is no question that this is torture - he's even embarrassed that we're even having a debate about it. There's a lot there.

Now, in terms of new ground, I think the most dramatic bit they've got is, they've actually got a document that they put up on their website, that others, Katherine Eban and Jane Mayer had previously alluded to but they'd never obtained, and this is memorandum that was prepared by the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo that details how SERE techniques - and that includes waterboarding by the way - were being authorized for use on detainees at Guantanamo, official, formal, high-level approved policy of the Bush administration. So, the bottom line is that this documentary for once and for all puts an end to this suggestion that detainee abuse results from a handful of rotten apples. It's makes it very very clear that it was formal policy crafted at the highest levels of the administration, and against tremendous opposition from career employees and even some of the political appointees of the Bush administration.

GG: That's the new aspect to the whole torture issue. We've known for quite some time that various aspects of the CIA and to some extent, a much less informal extent, of the US military, were subjecting detainees in our custody to all kinds of methods that have clearly been defined for a long time and clearly are torture, which really come out much more so over the past, say, 6-12 months, is very conclusive evidence that those methods were explicitly approved at the highest levels. The Bush administration, as I understand your piece, one of the focal points of this documentary is linking what we've long known about what we've done to detainees to formal official policy at the White House, at the top level of the Bush administration. Is that your understanding of one of the purposes of the documentary?

SH: Absolutely correct. And let's put it in little bit more context. Part of the push-back that came, both from the military and the intelligence officers, was them saying, we don't want to get scapegoated in this. We know what's going to happen, a new administration's going to come in to Washington, and they're going to do things differently; you're not to scapegoat us for this. If you want this done, you're going to formally approve it. So there was very serious, adamant insistence that this was going to be approved at the highest level of the administration, and indeed it was.

In fact, John Bellinger, the lawyer for Condoleezza Rice, submitted a statement to Senator Levin just 10 days ago now, in which he confirmed the ABC News report, whereby we know, in a handful of cases in which the most extreme techniques were used, there was a proposal written up; it was approved all the way up the hierarchy at the CIA, then it went to the White House and the National Security Council, and there was a principals' meeting - the principals' committee is all the members of the National Security Council save the president - there was a principals' meeting, at which actual torture techniques being applied to actual individual prisoners were discussed and approved, and this is, one of these sessions, John Ashcroft was reported to have said, in classic words of understatement, history will not look kindly on this.

GG: I guess part of the effort now is to manage what that history looks like, or how it ends up disclosing what it is that our government did, and that's the focal point of your piece, for The Daily Beast, which is, it seems as though there are efforts being exerted, quite deliberate efforts, to block the broadcast of this documentary at least until the Bush administration is out of office. Talk about what's going on with this documentary and what PBS is doing with regard with it's being shown.

SH: Yeah, well the production of this documentary began early in 2007 and there were discussions with PBS from the beginning - it's being made, it's being funded, and we'll need an air slot for it some time in the fall of 2008, it'll be finished in May of 2008. There was a general agreement; all was fine. Then when the documentary was finalized and submitted to PBS, they held on to it and were silent for a while, and then they came back and they told Shirley Jones, the producer, well, we're sorry, but due to scheduling problems and other considerations, we cannot find time for this before January 21, 2009.

GG: That was the date that they gave for when the first date that it could possibly be broadcast, and what's the significance of that date?

SH: And that is the first day of the new administration. So they basically said broadcast of this feature hinges on the regime change in Washington DC. Rather an extraordinary admission, I think.

GG: Right. They're not even attempting to conceal that. Now, one of the things that you do in your piece is you look at some of the reasons to believe that PBS might be fearful of broadcasting such an explosive documentary, something that so explicitly links the Bush administration to these overt torture programs. What is the some of the evidence that suggests that PBS has been driven in the past by fears of this kind, and that that's what's motivating them now?

SH: Well, in fact, the Bush administration attempted a whole series of appointments to the PBS board, where it tried to put in its own ideologues in positions of program control. There was quite an internal struggle over that. But I think the strongest indicator to me is what happened in March and April of this year. PBS Frontline went with a story that was called Bush's War, and if you go back and you look at it, it's actually pretty mild, but it basically goes through the run-up to the Iraq War; it repeats all the representations that were made by Bush, and it shows, well, the facts didn't bear any of these things out, and indeed based on what we know now, it appears there really wasn't any basis for the statements to be made when they were made.

But it's really done in one of these really cautious even-handed ways. And as soon as PBS announced that this program was going to show, the White House came out and said, we're going to slash the PBS budget drastically. They proposed to cut it 50% for 2009, 56% for 2010, and they proposed to eliminate public funding for PBS altogether in 2011 - sending a pretty clear message I think.

GG: Right, a message that PBS seems to have received. Now, the actions that we're talking about on the part of PBS are from the centralized, national PBS office. You report that what the documentary producers have done is, they went to the PBS affiliates, and attempted to convince the PBS affiliates on a case by case basis to accept the documentary and broadcast it on their own prior to January 21st 2009, the date of regime change. And you describe the fact that several, or most, I guess, 66% or so, two thirds of the affiliates, including some of the largest ones such as in New York, have accepted it for broadcast, but the one in Washington DC notably has refused to broadcast the documentary claiming the same kinds of scheduling conflicts that the national office has claimed as well in order to avoid showing this. And you talk about who the head of the Washington DC affiliate is and what connection or motive she might have for blocking the broadcast. Describe those issues.

SH: Well, let's just say, first of all, of all the major markets with PBS affiliates, only one couldn't find space to run this, and that was WETA in Washington DC. Now, arguably, I think of all the markets in the country, the one where there would be the highest demand to see this product, is in fact inside the Beltway in Washington, where you've got a large number of important Beltway players actually appearing and speaking in the documentary. So, the explanation that was given again was, well, we just don't have time until early next year, and the CEO of WETA is Sharon Percy Rockefeller; she is the daughter of the former Senator Percy from Illinois and the wife of Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, former ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

And I think it's no surprise to anyone that Senator Rockefeller would have great concerns about this documentary coming out because it relates to an issue on which he is in a very uncomfortable position. He was a key member of the so-called Gang of Eight, the Congressional leaders. The Bush administration says the Gang of Eight were fully briefed about all the highly coercive interrogation techniques, and they acquiesced to them; they gave their approval. What we have is some grumbling reservations from Rockefeller but it's very very clear that he never defends it, that he never put up objections to anything, and in fact if we wind up having a deep investigation of the whole torture scandal, as I think is quite likely in the coming administration, one of the points of investigation is going to be the behavior of Congressional leadership. Why were no objections raised? Why were there no oversight hearings in any of this? Obviously, he's going to be called to account for his management of the intelligence committee process. And, so it seems interesting that his wife is the CEO of this station, and this station is the only major player in the network that's saying no, they don't have space for this documentary.

GG: I've written a lot about the complicity on the part of Democratic Congressional leadership, as have you in many of these most controversial programs. In fact there was a Washington Post article that suggested that early on, when Congressional Democrats were briefed on some of these interrogation programs, that they not only passively consented but actively encouraged the program to continue and gave their stamp of approval. You interviewed the New Yorker report Jane Mayer about her book The Dark Side, I guess, a couple of months ago, and one of the things that she suggested was that the reason that Democrats in Congress were so reluctant to investigate these matters - and in fact they aren't only not investigating, but they're stifling an investigation, there passing laws to immunize prior law-breaking and doing everything they can to conceal what it is that occurred - her suggestion was that the reason that they're so motivated to avoid having all of this come to light is because they're petrified that their own vital role in enabling it all will come to light along with it, led by people like Jay Rockefeller and Jane Harman and even Nancy Pelosi and some of these key leaders in the Democratic leaders who were briefed in Congress.

Do you agree that that's part of what has motivated Democrats to be less than aggressive, to put it very generously, and even eager to prevent, to put it more accurately, some of these investigations?

SH: I think there's just no question about it. When you talk about the Congressional leadership of the Democrats, there's no question but that they're very very cold on this idea, and they're cold because it's going to embarrass the hell out of them. And in fact it may do worse than that. Jane Harman, was the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee; according to most of the accounts I've heard - and we have to stress, we really don't know everything that went on in this briefing process -- It's confidential, and we get competing portraits of what happened repeatedly. The administration tells us, oh, they signed off and wanted everything, and this is part of the DOJ investigation into the Gonzales taking notes at the meeting in which he portrays the Democrats as enthusiastically signing off on things. The Department of Justice suspects that this was a forgery in fact, an after the fact account that doesn't square with the facts. So we really do have to get to the bottom. But I think in any event, it's certainly embarrassing to them, and this is the reason why they'd really rather not go there, but we've got to strive...

GG: But let me just interrupt you, because there are conflicting claims about what took place, but what we know for certain is that they were in positions of authority, they're on the intelligence committees which are charged with oversight of the intelligence communities, ensuring compliance with the law. What we know for certain is that they didn't do anything to use their position of authority or their public platform to expose these illegal programs, to put a stop to them in any way. At best, some of them voiced some ineffectual objections. At best, they did that in private. But they certainly knew the programs were continuing and did nothing to stop them.

SH: That's correct. Now, what you'll hear from their apologists is, we were the minority, we didn't have the power to schedule and arrange hearings. And if we'd pushed things, we were going to be voted down. So, frankly for us, this was all a matter of information, that was it. I don't know, I think we need to have a full, fair account of what happened come out, and probably that's going to have to go through a commission, but I think the Republicans are right when they say, you know, what the Democratic leadership did needs to fully exposed too if there's going to be an inquiry. So I think they're raising that because they want to block an inquiry, but I think the point is an absolutely fair, correct point. It does need to be exposed.

GG: Now let me shift gears for a minute and talk to you about the piece that you wrote about Sarah Palin, and how she was discovered as a viable vice-presidential pick and who it was who led the way in terms of identifying her and then advocating for her selection. You talk about the role that Bill Kristol and The Weekly Standard played in that. Describe what it is you learned, and what you think the significance of that is.

SH: I'd say, of course the McCain campaign isn't doing too well right now, and one of the consequences of that is we've got a lot of finger-pointing going on within the camp, and I'd say there's a pretty broad agreement amongst a number of the senior-most advisors to McCain that the Palin pick is worse than disappointing. It's a total disaster, as one describes to me. And there is a sort of blame game going on there.

Now, one of them described to me quite recently in some detail, who it was who introduced and pushed the Palin nomination, and he says it really boils down - there were a number of people behind the nomination, but there's one person who was essentially the person who introduced her as a candidate and pushed her consistently and firmly all through the summer primary she was elected - and that person is Bill Kristol. And the interesting thing is of course, if we look across the whole horizon of conservative columnists, prominent conservative columnists, pretty much all of them are expressing reservations or concerns or they're outright opposing Palin as a pick, with one really striking exception, and that's Bill Kristol. And Bill Kristol, in none of his columns has acknowledged that he in a sense is the author of Sarah Palin. He discovered her, he promoted her, and he pushed her through to the vice-presidential nomination.

GG: Right. What's interesting about that is, Andrew Sullivan had some speculation - and it was only speculation, but I think it makes sense - that really what the neo-con wing of the Republican Party actually is interested in most is finding a new face for their agenda. George Bush became that for a while, that they may not have thought that was the case in the beginning, it turned out that was the case, and they see Palin as a potentially very valuable asset in their political world view, and even if they are writing off 2008 election, that they're looking to her as the one they want to build up into 2012.

What do you think the appeal is that at least Bill Kristol in this sort of Weekly Standard circle sees in Palin, why do they like her more than anyone else at this point?

SH: Well, I can tell you what I'm told was advanced as reasons for her: that she had very close ties to the religious right, so she would mobilize and motivate them. That she was essentially a blank book - she really didn't have attitudes about much of anything, so she was someone they could take and they could furnish the copy for, they could provide the content, but then a third and major point they made was, well, look, she's from a little tiny town in Alaska in the middle of absolutely nowhere, nobody knows anything about her, and people are unlikely to discover a lot about her because of this remoteness aspect, and that's a big plus. I think that last point really turns out to be a fatal miscalculation, because of course you have had taken some time to dig in and get information, but what's come out has been devastating.

GG: It's bizarre, you can really see the evolution from when she first arrived on the national stage with no history of opining on things like foreign policy, or much of anything beyond her provincial range of concerns in Alaska, to just absolutely reciting with blind and absolute loyalty, the entire neo-con right-wing line on virtually everything, from proclaiming her deep and abiding love of Israel, and talking about the flag she waves in her office, to every form of belligerence and aggressive militarism that they've been advocating, and that is the centerpiece of their political agenda. It's almost like they took a tape and put it in her back and wound her up and there she goes.

SH: That's right. They didn't even do a very careful job of editing it, because they gave her material that is contrary to the positions taken by Senator McCain on several issues.

GG: Right. Right, it's amazing - she is almost reciting the script from 2002, 2003; it's like they had an old tape lying around and put that in her, and that's what she's mouthing.

SH: Right. And if you look just in the news cycle from the last 48 hours, I would say the anger and irritation between a number of the senior people in the McCain camp and Bill Kristol has become really acute. I mean, it's flashed and Kristol again, saying basically that the entire campaign team should be fired, and they respond in kind criticizing him, saying he was mouthing Obama talking points, and so on. What is the touchiness that underlies all of that? They view this man as the guy who gave them this albatross, Sarah Palin. I think there's a lot of real anger about it. There's also recognition that it's too late to do anything. They can't replace her, they can't drop her, they're stuck with her right now. And there's also some suspicion, as one of the McCain advisors raised with me yesterday, there's some suspicion that they had dumped McCain, that basically they're now just proceeding to develop Palin as their candidate, as somebody they want to bring up in 2012, as the neo-con favored Republican. And I think that really has some of the McCain old school advisors bristling right now.

GG: Yeah, I think there's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to open and public infighting and recriminations, and it's hard to avoid admitting that's enjoyable to watch, and one can only hope that it intensifies, especially if the Republicans really do suffer the defeat they look right now to suffer across the board in just three weeks.

Well, Scott it's great to talk to you, and even better as always to read your worthwhile articles. Are you going to be writing regularly now at Daily Beast as well as Harper's, or where can one find most of your work now?

SH: Well, I'm doing longer-form journalism for Harper's; I'll have a big feature in the December issue, which I'm going to propose how to deal with this torture issue, that will be a feature there. But I'll be doing blog pieces a few times a month for The Daily Beast as well.

GG: Excellent. Well, Scott, thanks for taking the time today. Always a pleasure.

SH: Take care.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

Glenn Greenwald

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