Above the Fold: Know-Nothings at the NYT

Times waterboarding story reports, demonstrates ignorance of history

“There is no history of ethnic conflict in Iraq.” – former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, explaining to Congress in February, 2003, why Gen. Eric K. Shinseki’s prediction that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq was ”wildly off the mark.”

It’s true, of course, as Paul Wolfowitz demonstrated so vividly, that no other administration in memory can compete with George W. Bush’s for its pristine ignorance of (and matching contempt for) history.

Nevertheless, the lead story in this morning’s The New York Times strains credulity when it asserts that ex-CIA director George Tenet—and everyone else in the agency—was totally ignorant of the history of waterboarding when they decided to use it while interrogating prisoners after 9/11. Never mind that the United States had prosecuted Japanese interrogators for waterboarding their prisoners: this was also the favorite technique of the Gestapo against the Resistance in France.

But Tenet’s ignorance doesn’t stop there, according to New York Times torture “experts” Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, who wrote this morning’s story.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce. The process was “a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,” a former C.I.A. official said.

The subtext of this deep investigative effort is the same as it has been in an embarrassingly large number of stories carrying the Shane and Mazzetti bylines: how terribly unfair it would be if the Obama administration decided to prosecute these poor innocents, who were merely trying to protect their country at a time of mortal danger. Here is another passage of this morning’s story, demonstrating these reporters’ unsophistication—as well as their apparent willingness to make excuses for officials who knowingly committed war crimes on “our” behalf:

But according to many Bush administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and some intelligence officers who are critics of the coercive methods, the C.I.A. program would also produce an invaluable trove of information on Al Qaeda, including leads on the whereabouts of important operatives and on terror schemes discussed by Al Qaeda. Whether the same information could have been acquired using the traditional, noncoercive methods that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the military have long used is impossible to say, and former Bush administration officials say they did not have the luxury of time to develop a more patient approach, given that they had intelligence warnings of further attacks.

If these reporters had ever bothered to pay serious attention to people who actually know something about this subject—like the fifty former generals and admirals who, for the last four years, have lobbied continuously to end these idiotic practices—they would know, and they would make it clear to their readers, that most experienced American interrogators overwhelmingly believe that those “traditional noncoercive methods” are vastly more likely to produce genuine intelligence.

They would also make it clear that everyone in the F.B.I., including its director, have repeatedly argued that the approach of the Bush administration has been utterly counterproductive. They would remind us that the F.B.I. has long maintained that the most useful information obtained from Abu Zubaydah came from those noncoercive methods—and not after he was waterboarded eighty-three times. And somehow, somewhere, they would have managed to get into the paper the fact that F.B.I. director William Sessions does not believe that any of these torture techniques produced any information which prevented any attacks on the United States.

Because these reporters have missed so many opportunities to do that, this week FCP e-mailed Doug Jehl, the deputy chief of the Times’s Washington bureau, to ask him about this glaring omission. This is what I wrote:

To the best of your knowledge, has the Times ever reported the following:

[from VanityFair.com last December] I ask Mueller: So far as he is aware, have any attacks on America been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through what the administration still calls “enhanced techniques”?

“I’m really reluctant to answer that,” Mueller says. He pauses, looks at an aide, and then says quietly, declining to elaborate: “I don’t believe that has been the case.”

If not, why not? It seems to me nothing is more important in the current debate than whether or not torture produced important, actionable information. Cheney, Marc A. Thiessen (today in the WP) and dozens of others insist that it did. The director of the FBI says it did not. Isn’t that something that Times readers ought to be aware of?

This was Jehl’s reply:

I agree that the question of whether harsh interrogation methods produced important, actionable information is vital, and that it calls for further reporting. Thanks for calling to my attention the Vanity Fair article [which appeared last December] quoting Mr. Mueller. If those are indeed Mr. Mueller’s views, it’s an important element of a debate we intend to explore.

FCP hopes the Times will get around to that exploration real soon.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.