Debating torture with David Frum on CNN

The moral relativists of the right ignore the fact that whether or not it works -- and it rarely does -- torture is against U.S. law.

Published April 27, 2009 11:00AM (EDT)

My friends at Crooks and Liars have the video: I got up at 4:30 Sunday morning to debate torture with David Frum on CNN's "Reliable Sources." How was your day? I've been mildly impressed with Frum's lonely willingness to call out Rush Limbaugh as the divisive saboteur of the GOP that he is, but on torture, Frum's kickin' it old school, as if he's still writing speeches for the real Axis of Evil: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

In the National Post this week Frum defended torture for a lot of convoluted reasons: It may have worked; even if it didn't, boy we were upset after 9/11; plus Obama shouldn't admit it's against the law, because he shouldn't give up any prerogatives as commander in chief – even though he's already barred the abusive torture protocols of the Bush administration.

It got worse on "Reliable Sources," as you can see below. Frum was predictably amoral, arguing the only thing that matters is whether torture works, even though it was, yes, Ronald Reagan who signed the UN Convention against Torture that said we wouldn't use it. But the normally fairly sensible, non-ideological Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post blew my mind even more, because he decided to make the complex and shameful torture story Exhibit A in his defense of the much-maligned "he said, she said" school of journalism that Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald have been ripping to shreds. I don't think Cillizza will convince anyone.

The video's not embeddable, but you can see it in the link above. Also thanks to C&L, here's the transcript:


HOWARD KURTZ: David Frum, in your view, has the coverage been hostile to the Bush-era interrogation techniques and supportive of the idea that we ought to go after the people who are responsible?

DAVID FRUM: I wouldn't say that. I think the coverage has not -- where it has failed it has not conveyed just how radically unprecedented what the president has proposed is. It just has never happened that we have had prosecutions after the fact, or even the consideration of prosecutions after the fact, of individuals concerning things they did in the course of their official duty.

One more thing.People need to understand that in Washington, the process is the punishment. Even if the president eventually decides, no, we're not going to do this, we're not going to break course and do something new, we'll shut it down, the very fact that people have been exposed to the uncertainty implies huge legal costs. It implies interruption of people's careers, and this is new ground. And I think that is the thing that needs to be conveyed above all else. We're in uncharted territory.

KURTZ: Being investigated is an ordeal, as we learned during Whitewater and so many other investigations.

Joan Walsh, let me turn the question around. Is the coverage in the past week sympathetic to the idea of holding Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld accountable for what happened? And isn't that what the left wants?

JOAN WALSH: Well, no. I think the coverage has not been sympathetic to that idea. I think the coverage has pooh-poohed that idea and actually taken David Frum's point of view quite seriously, that this would be some sort of partisan witch hunt. And really, Howie, this is a complicated situation, but I don't believe that Obama himself flip-flopped. Surely, we saw what Rahm said last Sunday, but the president himself has been relatively silent. He did say he'd prefer to look forward.

But what no one is saying today is, it's not his decision. It is not his decision. It's Eric Holder's decision. He has to get out of the way and let Eric Holder decide. This is not a political issue.

KURTZ: Yes, but the attorney general works for the president, and the president sets the tone about...

WALSH: The president sets the tone, but he doesn't make the decision. You know, how quickly do we forget Watergate? I was a kid, but Nixon was constantly interfering with his Justice Department to the point where Elliot Richardson quit. We cannot have a situation -- and Obama very carefully recognized that with his so-called flip-flop this week by saying he's not going to prejudge it. It's not for him to prejudge.

KURTZ: Well, I would argue it's not a so-called flip-flop, because we have the videotape to show, at least the way they changed the emphasis.

WALSH: That was wrong.

KURTZ: Let me go now to that passion that surrounds this. Here's videotape of Fox anchor Shepard Smith. And this is not something that aired on Fox. It's an online program, so we have to do the bleeping here. But let's roll that.


SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS: We are America! I don't give a rat's (EXPLETIVE DELETED) if it helps!


SMITH: We are America! We do not (EXPLETIVE DELETED) torture!


KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, journalists and Americans, I think, have such a visceral reaction hearing about, for example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being waterboarded 183 times. And it can be kind of hard to remain objective. This is not your typical how many -- how should we design health care kind of issue.

CILLIZZA: Right. We're not debating reconciliation in the budget process. It's sort of not...


CILLIZZA: I do think, and I'll point out, Howie, I think it's the -- I don't think it's wrong, first of all, to have some ambiguity in terms of the coverage. A lot of people reject the "he said/she said" kind of ambiguity in terms of the coverage. A lot of people reject the kind of "he said/she said" kind of ambiguity in journalism.

I actually think this is a story where the "he said/she said "or "he said/he said" actually serves a purpose, because people on both sides of this both feel passionately and have intellectual arguments that make sense. Look at the "Washington Post"/ABC News poll this morning.

On question after question, first of all, President Obama very popular. But on torture, the American public deeply divided on this. So, I actually think we in the media do our people, readers, a service by saying this is an issue where people are very divided, passion's on both sides.

KURTZ: But just in terms of the language, Dan Lothian, I mean, what we're talking about here, waterboarding, which is near drowning or simulated drowning, face-slapping, putting somebody in a box with an insect. Can it be almost Orwellian for us to adopt the preferred language of the Bush administration, which is these were just enhanced interrogation techniques?

LOTHIAN: I think it can. And you know, this is not the end of it, because we know that these video -- rather, more pictures are going to be coming out in the future, next month.


LOTHIAN: And so this is something that will continue to live in the news cycle, and the American public will be confronted with. And they don't like it. I mean, they simply don't like it.

KURTZ: Let me go back to Joan Walsh, and then I'll get you, David. You were critical of "The New York Times" as one example of the newspaper's coverage for using phrases like "Critics say this crossed the line of torture." This morning, the ombudsman of the paper says they were big debates in The Times to upgrade the description of these techniques from harsh to brutal.

WALSH: You know, I couldn't disagree more with my friend Chris. This is not a "he said/she said" situation. This is torture. Torture is illegal. We don't sit here, Howie, and say he said murder is illegal, but she said, well, sometimes murder's not so bad. These are clear matters of law.

Ronald Reagan signed the 1988 U.N. Convention Against Torture where we committed ourselves to prosecuting people who torture. It's the law. It's super clear. It's not a partisan witch hunt or a "she said/he said" situation.

KURTZ: David Frum.

FRUM: It's not super clear, because the key piece of information people need, most people need to make a decision, is missing. Look, there's a hard core of civil libertarians who will say, I don't care whether this contributed to the defense of the country. Forget it, we won't do it, even if it means Americans die. And then there are some people who say, I support the president no matter what.

But most people want to know, did this contribute to the nation's safety? If so, we'll come to one judgment. If it was wasteful, as it's sometimes alleged, and achieved nothing, then we all condemn it. That's the thing we need to know, and that's the thing we don't know. That's the missing piece in all the reportage.


WALSH: No, it's illegal, whether it works or not. It's illegal whether it works or not, David.

FRUM: Well, as I said, there's a small minority who would feel like Joan does.

WALSH: Oh, really?

FRUM: Most people want to know, did it -- and that is the missing or the contradicted piece. We don't have a clear answer to that question.

WALSH: It doesn't matter.

CILLIZZA: Howie, I just want to...

KURTZ: Chris.

CILLIZZA: Joan, just real quickly, I just want to point out, in our poll that came our this morning, 49 percent of people said no torture under any circumstances; 48 percent, in some special circumstances, depending on the information. That's not my opinion.


WALSH: But Chris, the point is it's illegal. In what instance does it matter that 80 percent of Americans would like to murder Dick Cheney? Does that -- would that make it legal? It's not a matter of opinion. It's law.


By Joan Walsh

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