Vague pledges to "end torture" and "comply with treaties and laws"

When politicians pay lip service to vague generalities, it reveals nothing about what they actually intend to do about the worst of the abuses.

By Glenn Greenwald
December 6, 2008 12:01AM (UTC)
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[Updated below - Update II (response from Sen. Feinstein's office) - Update III - Update IV]

There have been several cogent critiques of Wednesday's front-page NYT article by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, regarding the debate over interrogation policies, that I wrote about yesterday in the context of examining comments made by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden.  But a specific criticism of that article has now arisen that Mazzetti and Shane committed some sort of journalistic sin by printing only part of Dianne Feinstein's statement -- a criticism amplified strongly today by Columbia Journalism Review's Charles Kaiser.  That criticism is, in my view, misplaced, and more importantly, illustrates an important point about the imminent debates over how to end the Bush era's torture regime.


As I detailed yesterday, Feinstein was quoted as making several statements clearly indicative of backtracking on her year-long, emphatic position that the CIA, and all other agencies, should comply with the Army Field Manual in interrogating detainees.  In response, Feinstein's office issued a statement to Time's Michael Scherer and to Spencer Ackerman taking issue with how the NYT reported on her remarks.  Notably, Feinstein did not deny either the accuracy of the quotes which the NYT printed nor did she deny the fact that she had backtracked on her vow to compel the CIA's compliance with the Army Field Manual.  Instead, her sole complaint was that the article failed to include the last sentence of her quote, which was this:

However 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.

Numerous people contend that this sentence was vital to Feinstein's meaning and somehow changes the context and dilutes the validity of the criticisms against her.  Kaiser accused the NYT today of "distort[ing] the senator’s remarks by omitting that sentence" and said he was "quite sure" that if Abe Rosenthal were still the Executive Editor, the responsible parties would be fired.  Harper's Scott Horton said the omission underscored the fact that the NYT article appeared to be a "vehicle for manufactured or false news."  Andrew Sullivan asked:  "How does a competent journalist not print the [omitted] sentence?"  Brian Beutler said that, as a result of that omitted sentence, it appears I "might have gotten a little ahead of [myself'] here" in criticizing Feinstein.

It's certainly arguable that that sentence should have been included (though, as Scott Shane told Kaiser, Feinstein spoke for a very long time and, by necessity, they only printed portions of what she said).  But much more significantly:  since when did a generalized vow to "effectively ban torture" and "comply with all laws and treaties" become so significant, or even meaningful at all, when it comes to debates over interrogation policies?


A professed belief in ending torture and complying with all laws is a perfectly nice aspiration, but that's all it is.  There's nobody involved in these debates who expressly rejects those concepts.  Even George Bush repeatedly insisted that he finds torture to be contrary to American values, that the U.S. absolutely does not torture, and that his interrogation policies comply with all treaties and laws ("Bush said his administration sticks to 'U.S. law and our international obligations'"). 

Absent specifics, such statements are meaningless, empty gestures bereft of anything substantive.  The fact that Feinstein added those vague concepts to the end of her much more specific statements (ones which were in tension with the vague pledges themselves) adds very little, if anything.  In what conceivable way does that even affect, let alone undermine, the critiques made about Feinstein's backtracking on her commitment to make the CIA comply with the Army Field Manual?  Is there anybody of any prominence in these debates who ever states:  "I support torture" or "I believe we should violate binding treaties and laws in how we formulate our interrogation policies"?  Paying lip service to those buzzphrases adds little or nothing.

Much the same can be said for Feinstein's vow to "provide[] a single standard across the government."  That statement is marginally more substantive than her pledge to end torture and treaty violations -- as it means that the CIA will not be exempt from generalized interrogation rules -- but her other more specific statements, where she says she is willing to go beyond the Army Field Manual and even consider "special measures" in the event of an "imminent terrorist threat," mean that this pledge for a "single standard" doesn't remotely undermine Shane and Mazzetti's characterization that she "seemed reluctant in recent interviews to commit the new administration to following the Army Field Manual in all cases."  


In fact, as Scherer correctly pointed out, the omitted part of Feinstein's statement bolstered the central point about Feinstein's backtracking:

 That full statement, however, seems to only confirm the Times' suggestion that Feinstein is backing away from the Army Field Manual standard for all interrogations, in favor of an alternative, still undefined, "single standard across the government."

Here is why this matters:  over the next couple of months, everyone involved in this debate -- especially Democrats in Congress, including those who aren't really interested in ending "coercive" or "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- is going to pay flamboyant lip service to the goal of "ending torture" and "ensuring compliance with all treaties and laws."  Everyone is going to say they are for that.


But as I detailed in the piece I wrote last week for the ACLU, those generalities reveal virtually nothing about whether they actually intend to take the steps necessary to put an unequivocal end to the Bush torture regime and restore America's standing in the world -- any more than those Senators who paid righteous tribute to "preserving civil liberties and privacy rights" as they voted for warrantless eavesdropping expansions and telecom immunity were saying anything meaningful about what they actually believe.   The substantive parts are to be found only in the details and substance of what they support, and that's what the NYT reported regarding Feinstein.

The point made by Shane and Mazzetti, and the criticism made here, was about Feinstein's sudden reversal of her long-stated position now that there is a Democratic President about to take over.  Though one can reasonably argue that it should have been included, that omitted sentence, containing empty generalities, doesn't undermine that in any way.

* * * * *


One last point.  Here is what a commenter to Brian Beutler's post, Steve Balboni, wrote yesterday, quoting Beutler (emphasis in original):

<<Still, I think Glenn Greenwald might have gotten a little ahead of himself here.>>

You don't say.

It must be exhausting to be perpetually outraged at the people who are, ostensibly, on your side.

I for one would like to see a Greenwald v. Sirota Steel Cage Match. Can we find someone to bank roll that? Perhaps Atrios can call George Soros and make the arrangements.

This is a very common sentiment, but I'll never cease to be amazed at the infantile way that so many people view political debates.  Apparently, just like a  junior high school football game, there are two teams -- the Democrats and the Republicans -- and, before the game begins, everyone picks which team is theirs, and then cheers for them no matter what.  Hence, Dianne Feinstein has a "D" after her name, which means she's "on my side," which means it's irrational to criticize her too much, because she's one of my team members.

Except:  like so many Senate Democrats, Feinstein has supported one measure after the next that I find objectionable in the extreme (see here and here).  Huge numbers of Congressional Democrats in general have not only supported one radical, destructive Bush policy after the next -- from the Military Commission Act, the Iraq War, warrantless eavesdropping, telecom immunity, Patriot Act renewals and so much more -- but many of their leaders were aware of and actively assented to many of the most extreme and anti-Constitutional of those abuses, including Bush's torture and illegal surveillance programs.  Even the best of them -- such as Ron Wyden, whose comments I criticized yesterday -- have, on occasion, voted for grotesque measures such as denying Guantanamo detainees the right of habeas corpus review.


How adolescent does someone have to be to view political disputes through a binary "team" prism where you cheer for people who are said, somehow, to be on "your side" -- even though they do and say things that fundamentally violate one's core political values and are wildly destructive?   These are politicians.  They all benefit from skepticism and pressure, not blind, pom-pom-waving support.  They deserve support when they do good things, opposition when they don't, and pressure and scrutiny at all times.

In particular, Congressional Democrats have not exactly covered themselves with glory when it comes to civil liberties, defending the Constitution, and impeding the worst aspects of the Bush agenda.  To the contrary, they've acquiesced to virtually all of it and enabled much of it.  Dianne Feinstein, using her influential positions on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, has been among the worst.  Anyone who sits back and assumes that they're going to do the right thing when it comes to interrogation and surveillance policies all because they have the glorious "D" after their name hasn't been paying attention to anything over the last several years.  

There are going to be all sorts of pressures exerted from many different directions.  Feinstein, in her follow-up statement yesterday to Scherer, even seemed to suggest that she expected Obama officials might be the ones who exert some of that pressure.  The CIA and their supporters aren't just going to sit back and let Congress straitjacket them, as they perceive it, without a serious fight.  Congressional Democrats have demonstrated no willingness whatsoever to take a stand on any of these issues.  It's nothing short of delusional to think they're going to do that now without constant vigilance and pressure being exerted -- all because they're Democrats and therefore they must be good and inherently deserving of giddy cheerleading from those "on their side."



UPDATE:  There is one other point worth noting, especially in light of Feinstein's odd statement yesterday "that she may be willing to be talked back from that position [using the AFM as the standard] by the Obama Administration, if it chooses to do so," and, more generally in light of the obvious discomfort Democrats are exhibiting on this issue right now.

Here is the very specific and emphatic pledge Barack Obama made last December when answering a questionnaire on executive power and related issues sent by Charlie Savage, then of The Boston Globe:

As President I will abide by statutory prohibitions, and have the Army Field Manual govern interrogation techniques for all United States Government personnel and contractors.

That's quite a solid vow, with no real wiggle room.  I have never personally argued that the Army Field Manual is the only, or even best, way to end torture.  But Democrats -- and Obama -- have argued that, repeatedly, and have vowed to use it as the standard for defining permissible interrogations techniques.  It will be interesting to see how much flexibility their supporters are willing to accord them if, as they are now obviously at least toying with, they decide they do not want to pursue that course of action.  Much of that will, I presume, depend on what their alternative is.  Still, Obama's pledge was quite emphatic.



UPDATE II:  I just received, via email, a response to this post from Gil Duran, Sen. Feinstein's Communications Director, which is posted in full, here.  I will simply note, as I told Duran, that the statement of Sen. Feinstein's to which he refers (the one he suggests that I "missed") is, in fact, a statement that I:  (a) noted, linked to, and quoted in yesterday's post (see Update III); and (b) linked to and referenced again in today's post.  

But they do have a valid point that the above quote about Feinstein's being willing to be "talked back from that position by the Obama Administration, if it chooses to do so" is Scherer's description of Feinstein's position, not a quote from Feinstein.  Note, however, that they do not deny the accuracy of Scherer's characterization (and indeed, what Scherer wrote is a close paraphrase of what Feinstein did say), and they still don't deny that the quotes in the NYT attributed to Feinstein are accurate.


UPDATE III:  Columbia Journalism Review's Charles Kaiser emails to say:


Glenn: Two points. First, Feinstein issued her statement after her interview with the Times reporters. So it seems logical to assume that it was designed to correct any misimpression she had left during that interview. Like Scott Shane, we all leave out plenty that people tell us during an interview. But this was a three sentence statement, issued afterwards, designed to clarify her position. And the Times left out one third of that clarification. You and I can disagree about the meaning of that final sentence, but I can't see any journalistic justification for omitting it from the Times piece.

I don't necessarily disagree with any of this.  As I said, one can definitely argue, reasonably, that it ought to have been included.  Kaiser makes a good case for that. But because that last sentence doesn't add anything of real substance, I can also understand the decision not to include it.  Speaking for myself, my criticisms yesterday of Feinstein's comments would have been exactly the same even if that last substance-free sentence had been included.  For me, it would not have changed anything.


UPDATE IV:  Mazzetti and Shane have an online piece in today's NYT reporting:

Feinstein Issues Statement on Torture

After some bloggers raised concerns that Senator Dianne Feinstein might be shifting her stance on the issue of American interrogation policy, the California Democrat has sought to clarify her views.

[As a side matter, this practice of referring to "some bloggers" without naming them or linking to them -- even when, as here, it's only a small handful who are being referenced -- is both irritating and harmful, because: (a) it's a way of continuing to belittle, minimize and even demonize what bloggers do (they're such unwashed, anonymous rabble that they can't even be named) and, more importantly, (b) it makes it exceptionally easy for reporters to distort what bloggers are actually saying, since refusing to name them makes it impossible for people to go and read it for themselves and it gives reporters an easy out when they distort things ("oh, I don't remember where I read it specifically - just saw it around on the blogs").

See the above interview with NPR's Tom Gjetlen as a perfect example of how that works. That's the same mentality that leads establishment journalists so frequently to copy or even steal from blogs without bothering to credit where they found it.]

In any event, Mazzetti and Shane add some new information about how clearly Feinstein -- who they said "has been among the most outspoken critics in Congress of the Bush administration’s embrace of harsh interrogation methods" -- backtracked in their interview:

[I]n an interview with The New York Times this week, [Feinstein] twice said, “I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible.” She mentioned the possibility of an imminent attack using a dirty bomb or other dire circumstance which might call for other, unspecified measures.

The speculation they offer for why Democrats have become so tied up in knots on these issues now that they can actually legislate is, to me, persuasive:  "Congressional Democrats appear reluctant to preempt Mr. Obama review of the issue, which may be why even Senator Feinstein’s latest statement allowed for 'alternatives' the president-elect might favor."  Given Obama's emphatic statements over the last year that he favors the Army Field Manual, one wonders why there appears to be such a widespread expectation that he might now advocate other, less restrictive solutions.

Email from Gil Duran, Communications Director to Sen. Dianne Feinstein


Mr. Greenwald:

It seems you may have missed an important statement by Senator Feinstein which was posted by Time's Michael Scherer yesterday:

"I strongly believe there should be a single, clear standard for interrogation across the federal government, and that this standard should comply with the Geneva Convention, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and U.S. law. I plan to introduce legislation in January that would close Guantanamo, make the Army Field Manual the single standard for interrogations, prohibit contractors from being used to carry out interrogations and provide the International Committee of the Red Cross with access to detainees. If the incoming administration decides to propose an alternative to this legislation, I am willing to hear its views. But I believe we must put an end to coercive interrogations by the CIA."

I have highlighted the second sentence because it is quite specific. "Make the Army Field Manual the single standard for interrogations" is crystal clear.

On another note, you inaccurately attribute an "odd statement" to Senator Feinstein. The statement that, "she may be willing to be talked back from that position [using the AFM as the standard] by the Obama Administration, if it chooses to do so, " is a reporter's interpretive paraphrasing of her remarks, not something she said. Thus, it should not be attributed to her.

Glenn Greenwald

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