In The New York Times this morning, Brian Stelter documents how a widely-cited 2007 report by ABC News' Brian Ross -- amplifying the claim by former CIA agent John Kiriakou that Abu Zubaydah lasted only 30-35 seconds on the waterboard before confessing numerous Terrorist plots to the CIA -- permeated media discussions and was uncritically repeated over and over, even though we know now the claim was absolutely false, as Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times. Below I document (a) just how pervasive that "Zubaydah-confessed-after-30-seconds" myth became and -- more importantly -- (b) how obvious it was to real journalists that Kiriakou's claim required serious skepticism and doubt.
But two years before Ross disseminated that Zubaydah falsehood, he was responsible for injecting into our discourse a separate claim that was equally false and at least equally damaging: namely, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed impressed his CIA interrogators by lasting an astonishingly long two-and-a-half minutes before "begging to confess." Citing nothing but anonymous CIA sources without a molecule of critical thought, this is what Ross "reported" on November 18, 2005:
According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.
On March 15, 2007, this is what Ross said on World News Tonight about Mohammed and waterboarding:
It's a technique used by the CIA with the President's approval where the person is put upside down, water is poured on their head. They have a sense they're drowning and it creates a gag-like reflex. He lasted the longest under waterboarding, we're told, before he broke, between two and two and a half minutes, and then he caved and told all.
We now know that this claim, too, was patently false, as Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month alone. Yet two years before the Zubaydah falsehood examined this morning by Stelter, this false "fact" -- that waterboarding works almost immediately in saving Americans lives as demonstrated by how quickly it broke Mohammed -- was repeated over and over to argue that waterboarding is both highly effective and, given how quickly it works, cannot possibly constitute torture.
On September 20, 2006, Ross appeared on Fox News with Bill O'Reilly and this discussion ensued:
ROSS: They start with a slap, then a slap on the chest, and then the cold room, sleep deprivation, which seems to be the most effective. But for some, the water boarding is what it took.
O'REILLY: OK. Now you say the guy who held out the longest was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is the alleged mastermind behind 9/11.
ROSS: That's right.
O'REILLY: How long did he last?
ROSS: About two and a half minutes, according to our CIA sources. . . .
O'REILLY: OK. So he gave it up. And most of them gave it up within seconds of being waterboarded, correct?
ROSS: 20, 30 seconds is the most people can take of this technique. It's that harsh. . . .
In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the information was very valuable, particularly names and addresses of people who were involved with al Qaeda in this country and in Europe.
And in one particular plot, which would involve an airline attack on the tallest building in Los Angeles, known as the Library Tower.
O'REILLY: Well, in fact, you say in your report that more than a dozen plots, a dozen al Qaeda plots to kill people were stopped because of the information they got from coerced interrogation?
ROSS: That's what we were told by sources.
O'REILLY: Do you believe that?
ROSS: I do believe that.
Charles Krauthammer, in a December 5, 2005 Weekly Standard article, featured Ross' claim in order to defend the Bush interrogation program:
According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "was able to last between two and 2 1/2 minutes before begging to confess." Should we regret having done that? Should we abolish by law that practice, so that it could never be used on the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed having thus gotten his confession?
In his Roll Call column, Mort Kondrake wrote that "the highest-ranking al Qaeda operative yet captured, Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, held out for two and a half minutes before begging to talk. The CIA claims it got valuable information from him." National Review's Rich Lowry echoed the claim: " Most terrorism suspects can't withstand waterboarding for more than 14 seconds, and KSM impressed his interrogators by holding out for more than two minutes." Another of National Review's super tough-guy warriors, Deroy Murdock, wrote: "Khalid Sheik Mohammed was silent until exposed to a few minutes of highly uncomfortable but non-lethal waterboarding, after which he babbled like a teenage girl on the telephone."
This claim that Mohammed lasted less than 3 minutes before confessing everything was repeatedly cited on CNN, MSNBC and by other news outlets and countless pundits as proof that (a) waterboarding works to save American lives; (b) it works almost immediately; and therefore (c) it is hard to call it "torture" since it only lasts for seconds. Indeed, Ross' report was cited to bolster one of the central arguments made by those who insisted that waterboarding could not be "torture" because individuals are subjected to it for such a short duration. Yet all along, Ross' report about Mohammed -- like his report about Zubaydah -- was based on nothing more than his mindless recitation of what unnamed Bush administration sources whispered to him about Mohammed's interrogation treatment, and it was false from start to finish.
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Exactly the same thing happened with Ross' 2007 report about Abu Zubaydah's interrogation. As Stalter notes today, Ross' "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.'"
Just marvel at the pure lies that masquerade as indisputable facts in our political debates. In his February, 2008 syndicated column that appeared in multiple media outlets across the country, the Right's leading intellectual historian and political philosopher, Jonah Goldberg, wrote:
THE TORTURE MYTH
WATERBOARDING FACT & FICTION
LESS than five minutes.
That's the total amount of time the United States has waterboarded terrorist detainees. . . . And that's it. Less than five minutes, three awful men, five years ago.
(We don't know how long, exactly, each was waterboarded, but reports suggest that Zubaydah lasted between 30 and 35 seconds, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed lasted the longest - between 90 seconds and three minutes.)
On his December 11, 2007 Fox broadcast, Brit Hume cited Ross' report and announced: "There were attacks planned and they were successfully thwarted." Nina Easton added: "One of the times is on this Al Zubaydah, who was a financier of 9/11, who was captured at a time when he was building a bomb to go off in a British school in Pakistan at the time of his capture, that he was--they couldn't get him to talk, and that after 30 to 35 seconds of waterboarding, he began talking, and, according to this CIA agent, he led them to information that thwarted attacks, led them to the top of the Al-Queda structure." Charles Krauthammer added:
We know from this Kiriakou guy that waterboarding was the right thing to do. It saved lives. It worked. It was used in a narrow number of cases. It was not done like the Abu Ghraib psychopaths for sadistic pleasure an amusement. It was used to obtain information, and it did.
As he said, it broke one terrorist in 30 seconds and another, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in three minutes. This is after he said he wanted a lawyer. After that, he didn't want a lawyer, he confessed, and it saved a lot of lives.
On December 11, 2007, CNN host John Roberts had this exchange with Kiriakou:
ROBERTS: How long did [Zubaydah] last?
KIRIAKOU: It's my understanding he lasted 30 to 35 seconds, which was quite remarkable.
ROBERTS: So, he had been resisting all of this time, then within 30 to 35 seconds, he suddenly folded up and said I'll give you anything you want?
KIRIAKOU: The next day he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because it would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured. . . .
ROBERTS: So, how valuable was the information that the CIA gleaned from waterboarding?
KIRIAKOU: I have no doubt that the information gleaned from Abu Zubaydah in his early days stopped terrorist attacks and saved lives.
The same day, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Kiriakou:
BLITZER: You had it done on you, and you lasted only a few seconds.
KIRIAKOU: Just a few seconds.
BLITZER: And he lasted a few more seconds.
KIRIAKOU: About 30 seconds, 35 seconds.
BLITZER: And, then all of a sudden he starts to talk.
KIRIAKOU: The next day, he told his interrogators that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate, so that it would easier on the other brothers who had been captured.
One could spend all day documenting the instances where this claim -- that Zubaydah broke on the waterboard after 35 seconds and then began spilling vital secrets that saved countless American lives -- was mindlessly repeated without an iota of critical thought from the pundits and "journalists" who cited it.
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What makes these episodes particularly notable is that there were ample reasons to doubt Kiriakou's claims, including the fact that he was not even present for these interrogations; he offered no evidence of any kind to substantiate his claims; he was an ex-CIA agent making claims to justify the CIA's conduct; and there was ample evidence suggesting that Zubaydah was a low-level functionary with substantial mental illness and little valuable information. Real journalist Dan Froomkin, reacting to Ross' report, immediately noted:
Kiriakou, whose first interview was with Brian Ross of ABC News, also made the unsubstantiated claim that torture worked. Kiriakou told Ross yesterday that, as a result of waterboarding, suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah coughed up information that "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks." . . . . But where's the evidence?
As I wrote in Friday's column, Bush and the Torture Tapes, investigative reporter Ron Suskind has written that Zubaydah was a mentally ill minor functionary, and that most if not all of the information he provided to the CIA was either old news -- or entirely made up.
There are many reasons why Americans should be skeptical about assertions that terrorist attacks were thwarted as a result of what administration officials would call "enhanced interrogation." (I enumerated some of the reasons last month at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor.)
And on December 11, Keith Olbermann had this exchange with former CIA agent Jack Rice about Ross' report:
OLBERMANN: One first question about logic and logistics. Mr. Kiriakou had moved on to stateside before the waterboarding actually began, he wasn't there for the confessions. How would he know how effective it had been or hadn't been? Is he overstating how much he would know about the results or would he have been kept in the loop somehow?
RICE: I think he could have tried to have kept in the loop but does he really know? The answer is no.
But that was the small exception in a tidal wave of uncritical media reports mindlessly repeating what Brian Ross had himself mindlessly repeated: that Zubaydah was waterboarded for only 30-35 seconds before telling the CIA all sorts of information that saved countless American lives.
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The ways in which these false Mohammed and Zubaydah claims were widely disseminated are important not only in their own right, but because they illustrate how so many of these absolute falsehoods are routinely injected into our debates, not only by the government but by their indispensable conspirators in the establishment media. There are few things more common than reporters mindlessly reciting what their anonymous government sources tell them to say, and no matter how many times that dynamic results in pure fiction being "reported," that slothful, propagandistic practice continues to be the staple of our modern press corps.
Using that method, Brian Ross, of course, was responsible for the widespread and completely false reports in October and November, 2001 that government tests on anthrax resulted in a finding of bentoninte, which -- Ross breathlessy said over and over -- was a key sign that the anthrax attacks came from Saddam Hussein. That same method -- uncritically reciting what anonymous government sources told them -- is what led The Washington Post to spread absolute lies about the inspiring firefight Jessica Lynch waged against her evil Iraqi captors and the circumstances surrounding Pat Tillman's death. And most of the myths and lies about Iraq -- both before and during the war -- were the by-product of this same joint government/media effort.
Indeed, one could write volumes about the myths and falsehoods that are regularly "reported" when establishment media reporters uncritically repeat as fact what anonymous government officials tell them to say. Yet that continues to be the central method for how establishment media outlets convey information about the government. And no matter how many times they are exposed as spreaders of absolute falsehoods -- as Ross, yet again, is so exposed today -- they continue to engage in the same behavior, rendering unavoidable the conclusion that such falsehood-spreading behavior on behalf of the government is what they are eager to do.
UPDATE: Ross' report about Mohammed breaking down and confessing everything after less than 3 minutes on the waterboard was obviously completely false. That report was based on nothing but anonymous sources who ostensibly told that to Ross. Basic journalist ethics compel a reporter to identify one's sources if those sources lie to the reporter with the intent to have the reporter disseminate falsehoods, but just as Ross did with his sources who falsely told him about the Saddam-incriminating bentonite in the anthrax, Ross will almost certainly continue to protect his sources here who fed him patent falsehoods about Mohammed's interrogation. What matters to them is that they continue to be chosen to be fed "exclusives" by anonymous government officials -- not whether the claims are true or false.