"The New York Times a few months ago made the decision to call torture, torture. And frankly I think it’s aided in the clarity of their coverage. You don’t need these extraordinary write-arounds. You can just call it what it is." -ProPublica's Eric Umansky.
On Tuesday The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on CIA torture and the lies surrounding it. Bob speaks to Matt Apuzzo from the New York Times about cases cited in the report where the C.I.A. said its torture tactics thwarted plots and led to the capture of terrorists, but the committee's report undercut those accounts. Then, Bob speaks to Eric Umansky, the assistant managing editor at ProPublica, who has been cataloging the use of torture terminology used by various news organizations.
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is a special podcast edition of On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
"The fallout continues tonight from the release of the so-called CIA torture report that all the world has now been allowed to see."
"This document more than 500 pages long details the mistreatment of prisoners after 9/11. Claims the agency misled the public and the President."
"And it shows that torture carried out by the CIA was far more brutal, far more widespread and on far shakier legal ground than the agency had previously represented."
BOB: The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the lies surrounding it was released Tuesday. It was graphic and horrifying, in its unvarnished depiction of medieval abuses, and in the knowledge that all of it was conducted by our government in our name in zealous defense of our sacred freedom.
(Andrea Mitchell to Brennan at Press Conference Thursday): waterboarding, near drowning, slamming people against the wall, hanging them in stress positions, confining them in small boxes or coffins, threatening them with drills, waving guns around their head as they are blindfolded...
BOB: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell to CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday, citing the menu of depravity. She did not mention the technique called “rectal rehydration,” which sounds like a New Age therapy, but isn’t. The report in all its sickening detail yielded the inevitable disgust, and the inevitable partisan objections. Senate Republicans, who refused to participate in the report’s preparations, criticized the summary of 5 years’ investigation as a Democratic smear. Senate Minority Leader and soon to be majority leader Mitch McConnell said, quote, “This is the Democrats’ only report….It served no purpose other than to confirm what we already knew that certain techniques were used on a few people.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney, the inquisitor-in-chief who had personally signed off on the policy, went on a media no-apology tour to deny -- without evidence -- the nauseating Senate finding that the torture failed even to produce useful intelligence.
Cheney: We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and to prevent a further attack. And we were successful on both parts.
Bret Baier: This report says it was not successful.
Cheney The report is full of crap. Excuse me. I said hooey yesterday, but let me use the real word.
BOB: On another show, Fox host Andrea Tantaros simply...well, I won’t characterize what she said, because it’s like describing the sunset. Words are insufficient:
Tantaros: And look, I agree with you, the United States America is awesome. We are awesome. But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it and we stopped doing it. And the reason they wanna have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are, this administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.
BOB: That insight, of course, comes courtesy of cable channel friendly to the Bush-Cheney administration and openly hostile to Democrats. One of the more disturbing aspects of the Senate report is how the so-called liberal media against which Fox defines itself, were co-opted with phony claims that they uncritically passed along. The scheme offered eerie echoes of Judith Miller, Dick Cheney and phantom weapons of mass destruction: the strategic-leak love triangle that helped justify a ruinous invasion of Iraq. From the report, quote: “The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s detention and interrogation authorities and budget…”
Tom Brokaw: At the CIA and the other American intelligence agencies, after four years of turmoil, are they better or worse. Tonight, I'll take you to the highest echelons and deep inside the war on terror.
That was Tom Brokaw anchoring NBC’s June 2005 special “The Long War.” Concurrent with the broadcast, according to the Senate report, the network published an online article -- citing anonymous intelligence sources --- attributing the capture of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ultimately to information gleaned in the the water-boarding of detainee Abu Zubaydah. A year later, a New York Times piece quoted an anonymous CIA source who claimed, after the water-boarding of Zubaydah commenced, quote: “He soon began to provide information on key Al Qaeda operators to help us find and capture those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.” Except, the Senate report says, it simply isn’t true; CIA received its actionable intelligence from an informant within Al Qaeda -- motivated not by torture but by cash money. That nugget, weirdly, was also reported by Brokaw in his 2005 special. Two contradictory explanations, and NBC reported both. According to the Intelligence committee, such discrepancies abound -- including concoctions made not merely for the media, but for the Congress, the FBI and even the Bush White House itself.
BOB: Matt Apuzzo is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist at the New York Times. On Tuesday he examined eight cases cited in the so-called Torture Report, where the C.I.A.said its torture tactics thwarted plots and led to the capture of terrorists, but which claims were debunked by the committee. Matt, welcome back to OTM.
APUZZO: Great to be here.
GARFIELD: Let's just go down the list of the intelligence triumphs claimed by the CIA and the debunking according to the report. We may as well begin with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Here's Republican Congressman Peter King on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor in 2011.
KING: We got vital information which directly led us to Bin Laden.
KING: It was during the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed through water-boarding.
APUZZO: The whole hunt for Osama Bin Laden really boils down to a hunt for his courier a guy by the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. The story has been out there, that the black site interrogation were what finally led the CIA to al-Kuwaiti and thus led them to Bin Laden's door. But the committee's report shows that as early as 2002, the CIA had a wealth of information about the courier. They knew his alias, they knew how close he was with Bin Laden. They had a physical description of him. And that the CIA was wire-tapping a phone number associated with him. Monitoring an email address that was associated with him. They had recordings of his voice. So the committee is saying, the idea that you needed harsh interrogation to get on to the courier is wrong. The real lynch pin in the hunt for Bin Laden is this detainee named Hassan Gul, who was subject to harsh interrogation. But the committee says Hassan Gul was cooperative right from the beginning - soon as he was captured. One of the documents cited in the reported says that he 'sang like a tweety-bird' and that he expansively discussed the courier, described him as Bin Laden's closest assistant, and basically laid the groundwork for catching al-Kuwaiti.
BOB: Sang like a tweety-bird without being tortured.
APUZZO: Correct. Just having a conversation.
BOB: Another high-profile case concerned Jose Padilla, the American who was accused of a plot to plant a dirty bomb. This is ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 in 2007:
John Kiriakou: With Abu-Zabaydah they worked very well and we were able to corroborate the information he provided after the water-boarding and it turned out to be accurate.
BOB: The committee says, 'not so fast.'
APUZZO: The Padilla case is really interesting, because when this came out in 2002 it was just this terrifying prospect. Here was an American who was accused of plotting a radiological dirty bomb attack inside the United States, and it has since come out that the CIA credited the interrogation of its first high-value detainee Abu-Zabyadah with uncovering this plot and leading the CIA and the FBI to Jose Padilla in the United States. His arrest has been held up for years as proof that water-boarding and these tactics work. What is frankly really interesting about the report's take on Jose Padilla is that Abu-Zabaydah information on Jose Padilla's plot was really sketchy. And that he provided it well before he was water-boarded. In fact, Jose Padilla was arrested by the FBI in May 2002, that's three months before the CIA's interrogation of Abu-Zabaydah began. So the committee says - 'hey, you already arrested this guy and knew that he was planning this plot, even before you water-boarded Abu-Zabaydah.' What's super interesting about the committee's report is that it shows that a lot of people in the CIA didn't even take this plot seriously. Apparently, and this is the first I'd heard of this, this plot involved putting uranium in a bucket and swinging it over your head on a pole for 45 minutes. And the CIA analyst determined would, I believe this is the quote: "definitely not result in a nuclear explosive device but would definitely kill you". Jose Padilla definitely would have died. And nothing else would have happened.
BOB: There were a couple of plots that were foiled that the CIA attributes to information gleaned in the torture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that, again, it becomes like a broken record, the committee concludes, pre-existed the torture itself. They had the information. Tell me about these two plots.
BOB: That supposedly were thwarted with evidence gathered with evidence gathered through water-boarding.
APUZZO: Sure. I'd like to focus on the biggie. What's begin known as the second wave plot. So in 2006 the White House announced that there had been a plot to immediately follow 9/11 which Malaysian hijackers were going to use a shoe bomb to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building in Los Angeles. The CIA credited the water-boarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with uncovering the second wave plot. But the committee report says that the CIA learned about the plot in January 2002 with the arrest of the ring leader, a guy by the name of Misran bin Arshad before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured, before he was water-boarded. And they said, 'that's how you thwarted the plot,' by capturing the Malaysian at the center of the whole thing. The CIA has responded and said, 'look it was wrong for us to say we learned about the plot through the water-boarding. What we should have said is that we got additional information after using this enhanced interrogation on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others. It does seem to be a situation where the CIA said "Look, we used imprecise language but we still think we got good information from enhanced interrogation that helped us unravel this plot."
BOB: Let me play the devil's advocate for a moment Matt. Presuming society agrees that torture is acceptable in the so-called ticking bomb scenario where many many lives are at stake. It becomes morally acceptable to torture. Let's just say. And let's just say that all of these scenarios as described in the report qualify under the ticking bomb scenario. Let's just say. We did learn through 9/11 that just being in possession of information does not necessarily get the government springing into action. It doesn't necessarily get its various agencies sharing information to act on what it already knows. Is it possible that just the corroboration of previously gathered evidence, gleaned from this torture, spurred the intelligence community to do exactly what it says it did: act to prevent large scale terrorist attacks that could have killed many people. Is it possible that absence the intelligence gleaned from torture, the other intelligence would have just languished there as it did before 9/11, un-acted upon.
APUZZO: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that's why it's so important we study this stuff and see this report not as a accusation or something that needs to be defended against. But to try to go through it and really read the footnotes and frankly I hope we can get a full declassified version at some point. This is a historic document that really serves as a chronology of this unprecedented moment in our history. It's absolutely possible that some of this information was corroborative and helped the CIA. And frankly, I don't think the people who did the investigation for the Senate are going to get up and say: "The CIA got no information from this.' They're saying: 'Nothing in this directly thwarted or was essential to thwarting a plot' but sure, obviously, information was gleaned from this interrogation.
BOB: Is there any benefit to the political right saying the left have just manufactured a kangaroo court case against the Bush Administration and the left saying the political right are liars and apologists and for torture.
APUZZO: I suppose there's always a benefit to a vigorous debate on this. But I'm hopeful that as really smart people spend a lot of time with the report, that we learn a lot about our history from this. Beyond, 'you did this' and 'you should have done that' and 'you're bad.' One of the things that is clear from this report is the CIA after 9/11 was faced with this huge challenge with preventing another terrorist attack and basically re-invents itself overnight. And when they started out they never planned on having prisons and using these tactics. They wanted to do a prison system that followed US prison laws. Or US law of war detention. And as sort of time progressed that just sort of fell away. And I think it's important for us to understand how that happens.
BOB: Matt, thank you.
APUZZO: Thank you.
BOB: Matt Apuzzo is a reporter for the New York Times. For the record, on Thursday, the CIA denied willfully misrepresenting anything to the American people.
BOB: In June, 2009, I spoke to then NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who had supported the network’s then-practice of declining to explicitly identify waterboarding and other CIA tactics as “torture.”
BOB GARFIELD: I put it to you that embracing a euphemism for torture validates a political position. You’re trying to be apolitical but, in fact, to embrace terms like “harsh interrogation tactics” instead of calling a thing by its name, in effect, gives credence to the Bush Administration’s argument, does it not?
ALICIA SHEPARD: Yes, I think it does. I think using terms like “harsh interrogation tactics” or “enhanced interrogation techniques” does validate the Bush Administration. So that’s why I said why not just describe it. I think when you detail something and explain specifically what it is, then the public can decide.
BOB GARFIELD: NPR certainly has no difficulty calling murder “murder.” It doesn't call it “enhanced argumentation technique.” The terrorists call themselves “freedom fighters” but NPR calls acts of terror “acts of terror.”
ALICIA SHEPARD: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: In other respects, NPR hasn't taken a position against, you know, nouns. Why this one, in particular?
ALICIA SHEPARD: I think because it is a hotly debated topic. Isn't that why any news organization is studying it, analyzing it, trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do? I get emails from people who say, why doesn't NPR call a doctor who performs abortions a terrorist? Our language in general is totally evaluative and loaded with meaning, and so whatever someone uses, if someone else disagrees with it, then that language is wrong. So, embedded in NPR’s policy, it does say that we may refer to specific techniques, such as water-boarding, and note that the President and the Attorney General have said that water-boarding is torture. So, NPR does not have a “never use the word ‘torture’” in their arsenal.
BOB: That rationale was not then unique to NPR, nor is it to this day. After 9/11, as practiced by the CIA, water-boarding and other torture techniques suddenly became a subject too politically explosive to be spoken of by their actual name. I say suddenly because in the previous 70 years, American media had no difficulty whatsoever calling water-boarding torture -- perhaps because the cases being reported till then foreign savagery. A 2010 study by students at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy documented the usage at four major newspapers over the 20th century, and the dramatic shift following the revelations from Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. At the New York Times, for example, from 1931 to 1999, in 81.5% of mentions, water-boarding was called -- or implied to be -- torture. From 2002 to 2008, only two of 143 articles about water-boarding -- 1.4% -- used the T word. At the L.A. Times, for roughly the same periods, the torture label was applied 96.3% historically and 4.8% since 2004.
And the beat goes on.
Are drones more humane than enhanced interrogation? We’ll read your comments on that. Next.
Brutal interrogations produced little, if any, actionable intelligence.
To capture Al Qaeda suspects, whisk them off to secret sites, and interrogate them with harsh techniques, including water-boarding.
BOB: Eric Umansky is assistant managing editor at Pro Publica and he has been cataloging the terminology used by various news organizations this week. Eric, welcome back to the show.
UMANSKY: Thanks for having me.
BOB: Me, I've seen some directness, some euphemism and some, um, tortuous middle-ground. What is the predominate language this week, used to describe water-boarding and arrest.
UMANSKY: I think there's been a real mixed-bag. The New York Times and its been well talked about - a few months ago made the decision to call torture, 'torture.' And frankly I think its aided in the clarity of their coverage. You don't need these extraordinary write-arounds. You can just call it what it is. Other places have everything from 'harsh tactics' - 'severe techniques' - some places, and this I find really surprising frankly at this late point in the game, refer to 'enhanced interrogation techniques.' That is a bureaucratic euphemism that was created by the government.
BOB: And where did you locate that?
UMANSKY: Oh, I'm sorry. That was on NPR.
BOB: My favorite, I must say, was in the Wall Street Journal. It described what went on in Abu Ghraib and various secret CIA prisons as 'rough treatment.' Which reminds of describing a shower rape at Penn State as horsing around. And that wasn't the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal - but you don't necessarily discern a partisan tilt in the use of various kinds of euphemisms. You can't necessarily look at the euphemism and predict what paper produced it.
UMANSKY: No, that's exactly right. I will say, looking at the Wall Street Journal's coverage it struck me as somewhat less full-throated than other publications. But generally, I think you're absolutely right. That this is not primarily an ideological take. And clearly there are ideological components to people calling it some things and shying away from the use of torture. But there's also a real strong strain that has nothing to do ideology but rather is simply letting an excess of caution get in the way of plain accurate descriptions.
BOB: Is it your sense that the outlets that employ euphemism and this torturous language are doing it because they feel the word 'torture' might actually not apply or simply because they feel the word is so politically charged that using it opens them accusations of bias. Is someone working the refs and are they capitulating?
UMANSKY: I suspect that it's the latter. You know, hard to know what's going on deep down in people's thinking around each of these. But, I think it would be hard to argue, looked at plainly, some of the techniques that were detailed in the report and to then look at the definition, the commonly understood meaning of what torture is and to really have a significant dispute that putting somebody in a human-sized coffin for a week - what that would qualify as. Putting somebody in shackles in a dark room for 17 days. Giving people what was, in a euphemistic term, referred to as 'rectal rehydration' - obviously sounds like an awful term, but also has this sort of medical tint to it. When in fact there's not medical justification for it. What it was - was sexual assault and torture.
BOB: In our introduction we referred to a 2010 study done by students at Harvard which demonstrated, unequivocally, that until Abu Ghraib the media had no difficulty calling water-boarding torture. In fact between 80-90 percent of the time that these large news organization were writing about the practice, which goes back at least to the beginning of the 20th century, it was labeled torture, full stop, and only in a post-9/11 environment did it suddenly become subject to interpretation. How did that happen?
UMANSKY: Torture got turned into a political debate. And when you have terms and language that becomes the subject of a political debate a number of media institutions and many journalists can essentially get overly concerned about "taking a position" so that once the issue of torture became this debated thing, then calling something what it is became implicitly taking a position somehow in the debate or being seen to take a position. And, you know, I just think you're doing damage to our job. Our job to accurately and clearly describe things. And as you point out - and these students pointed out in their study from 2010 - absent the political debate, when stripped of that, when you talk about the treatment of people in other countries, it's not at all hard to call something what it is. And I think that's a sort of clarifying exercise.
BOB: You detected a strange sort of having-it-both-ways phenomenon wherein news organizations would use the term for the Senate's investigation "The Torture Report" either in or out of quotes in headlines or 'the so-called torture report' without mentioning the word torture in the body of the story. How prevalent was that solution?
UMANSKY: I saw that a few times. And we should understand and acknowledge the fuller context here. Which really goes beyond journalists and journalism. The report itself didn't use the word torture, right? They were quite careful about that. Now, the report as everybody knows, is incredibly damning and has remarkable details. They didn't use the word not because they were using euphemisms, but because they were trying essentially not to hand any further ammunition to potential critics and so-forth. But it's all emblematic of the fact that we as a society have - and polls suggest this too - not really come to a consensus about how we feel about what was done in those CIA dark prisons. The ambivalence that you see on news pages and that you see in stories, I think is to some degree a reflection of our society's ambivalence over all.
BOB: Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC: Thank you for having me.
BOB: Eric Umansky is assistant managing editor of Pro Publica. To update NPR’s policy, the network issued guidance offering no hard and fast rules. The word torture has been used by All Things Considered host Robert Siegel and reporter Tom Gjelten without attributing it to third parties. According to an August memo reissued this week by Standards and Practices editor Mark Memmott, quote “Our guidance on use of the word “torture” comes down to the issue of whether it “makes sense in the context of the piece.” NPR has not replied for our requests for comment.
BOB: That’s it for this special edition. On The Media is produced by Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer, Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Andrew Chugg and Ethan Chiel. We had more help from Kasia Myhailovic. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Remember to check your podcast feed again tomorrow for the regularly scheduled edition of On the Media which, this week, is Brooke’s report from Liberia. There is also a brand new episode of our spin off podcast, TLDR - subscribe on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I’m Bob Garfield.