The Washington Post's Cheney-ite defense of torture

The leading neocon newspaper uses anonymous sources and deceitful tactics to suggest that torture saved lives.

Published August 29, 2009 3:30PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

If anyone ever tells you that they don't understand what is meant by "stenography journalism" -- or ever insists that America is plagued by a Liberal Media -- you can show them this article from today's Washington Post and, by itself, it should clear up everything.  The article's headline is "How a Detainee Became An Asset -- Sept. 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding" -- though an equally appropriate headline would be:   "The Joys and Virtues of Torture -- how Dick Cheney Kept Us Safe."  I defy anyone to identify a single way the article would be different if The Post had let Dick Cheney write it himself.  The next time someone laments the economic collapse of the modern American newspaper, one might point out that an industry which pays three separate reporters (Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate) and numerous editors to churn out mindless, inane tripe like this has brought about its own demise.

Here's the essence of the article, presented -- in terms of tone, length and placement -- as a Vital New Scoop:

After enduring the CIA's harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency's secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called "terrorist tutorials" . . . .

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its "preeminent source" on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques. . . .

[F]or defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general's report and other documents released this week indicate.

Who are the Post's sources for this full-scale vindication of Dick Cheney's defense of torture?  "Two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified"; "one former senior intelligence official said this week after being asked about the effect of waterboarding"; "one former U.S. official with detailed knowledge of how the interrogations were carried out said"; "One former agency official."  It's unclear how much overlap there is in that orgy of pro-Cheney anonymity, but there is not a single on-the-record source to corroborate the Torture-Saved-Us-From-Mass-Death narrative, nor is there even a shred of information about the motives or views of these "officials."

What makes the Post's breathless vindication of torture all the more journalistically corrupt is that the document on which it principally bases these claims -- the just-released 2004 CIA Inspector General Report -- provides no support whatsoever for the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, despite the fact that it was based on the claims of CIA officials themselves.  Ironically, nobody has done a better job this week of demonstrating how true that is than the Post's own Greg Sargent -- who, in post after post this week -- dissected the IG Report to demonstrate that it provides no evidence for Cheney's claims that torture helped obtain valuable intelligence. 

That the released documents provide no support for Cheney's claims was so patently clear that many news articles contained unusually definitive statements reporting that to be so.  The New York Times reported that the documents Cheney claimed proved his case "do not refer to any specific interrogation methods and do not assess their effectiveness.ABC News noted that "the visible portions of the heavily redacted reports do not indicate whether such information was obtained as a result of controversial interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding."  TPM's Zachary Roth documented that "nowhere do they suggest that that information was gleaned through torture," while The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman detailed that, if anything, the documents prove "that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA’s interrogations."  As Sargent reported, even Bush's loyal Terrorism adviser, Frances Fargos Townsend, admitted that the IG Report provides no basis for what the Post today is ludicrously implying:

It’s very difficult to draw a cause and effect, because it’s not clear when techniques were applied vs. when that information was received. It’s implicit. It seems, when you read the report, that we got the — the — the most critical information after techniques had been applied. But the report doesn’t say that.

Yet The Post today publishes a long, breathless story that, in reality, does little more than claim that (a) Khalid Sheik Mohammed was subjected to "the CIA's harshest interrogation methods" (not "torture," of course) and (b) at some point after that, he provided valuable intelligence.  At best, it's nothing more than a statement of obvious chronology, not causation.  Nonetheless -- faithfully employing the same semantic game Cheney used to obfuscate chronology and causation, which Sargent first highlighted -- The Post loudly and unmistakably suggests that it was the torture that caused the waterfall of life-saving intelligence, and repeatedly grants anonymity to "intelligence officials" to claim this is so, notwithstanding the complete absence of any evidence for such claims and the ample evidence, as the Post's own Sargent documented, proving this to be untrue.

The debate over whether torture extracted valuable information is, in my view, a total sideshow, both because (a) it inherently begs the question of whether legal interrogation means would have extracted the same information as efficiently if not more so (exactly the same way that claims that warrantless eavesdropping uncovered valuable intelligence begs the question of whether legal eavesdropping would have done so); and (b) torture is a felony and a war crime, and we don't actually have a country (at least we're not suppoesd to) where political leaders are free to commit serious crimes and then claim afterwards that it produced good outcomes.  If we want to be a country that uses torture, then we should repeal our laws which criminalize it, withdraw from treaties which ban it, and announce to the world (not that they don't already know) that, as a country, we believe torture is justifiable and just.  Let's at least be honest about what we are.  Let's explicitly repudiate Ronald Reagan's affirmation that "[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever . . . may be invoked as a justification of torture" and that "[e]ach State Party is required [] to prosecute torturers."

But sideshow or not, media outlets ought to exercise at least the most minimal amount of mental thought and skepticism before passing on baseless, anonymous claims that Torture Works and Saves Lives.  It's long been clear that most of our establishment media believes in torture -- that's why there was so little outcry from them when the torture regime was implemented and why they're yet again reacting with horror over the prospect of accountability.  As a result, they are now eager to argue it worked in order to justify not only what Bush officials did, but also their own complicity in it. 

The Post article today is one of the most astoundingly vapid and misleading efforts yet to justify torture -- a true museum exhibit for the transformation of American journalism into little more than mindless amplifiers for those in power.  It simultaneously touts facts as new revelations that have, in fact, long been claimed (that KSM provided valuable intelligence), while deceitfully implying facts that are without any evidence whatsoever (that he did so because he was tortured).  Dick Cheney couldn't have said it better himself.  It's so strange how often that's true of The Liberal Media.


UPDATE To The Washington Post:  if even Politico -- that's Politico -- notices and points out that you appear rather blatantly to be shilling for Dick Cheney by masquerading pure propaganda as "straight news," then that's a rather compelling indication that you're doing exactly that.

Politico also points to these comments earlier this week from actual journalist Jane Mayer about Mohammed:

Well, the documents that I've seen, and maybe I'm missing something, but so far, I am amazed at how little support there is for the things that Vice President Cheney has been saying. There is nothing but a mass of claims that they got information from this individual and that individual, many from KSM, who apparently has been the greatest fount of information for them, but there's absolutely nothing saying that they had to beat them to get this information. In fact, as anybody knows who knows anything about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was dying to tell the world, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera before he was in US custody, about everything he knew and everything he did. He was proud of his role as the mastermind of 9/11. He loves to talk about it. So there's no evidence that I see in this that these things were necessary. I spoke to someone at the CIA who was an adviser to them who conceded to me that "We could have gotten the same information from tea and crumpets."

It would be one thing for Fred Hiatt to have printed this Post article as an Op-Ed from, say, John Bolton or some dutiful, low-level former Bush official.  That's just standard Post behavior.  But to print this as a purported "news article" -- and tout it as revealing "previously unpublicized details" -- is, quite arguably, a new propagandistic low even for the Post, which is saying quite a bit.


UPDATE II:  Just as happened with the run-up to the Iraq War -- when pro-war newspaper stories based on pro-Cheney leaks became the "evidence" Cheney cited on Sunday news shows to "prove" the Iraqi threat -- the Post article "proving" that Torture Worked will almost certainly be cited by all torture defenders on this weekend's Sunday shows -- including by Cheney himself when he appears on Fox News and his daughter when she appears on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  Here's Stephanopoulos, on Twitter, already laying the groundwork for that to happen:

As of today, thanks to the Post article, KSM's torture-caused, life-saving disclosures will be every bit as much a blindly accepted "fact" in our political discourse as Saddam's aluminum tubes were in 2003 -- and both myths were disseminated by the same people and the same "journalistic" methods.  

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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