Above the Fold: Ross, Kiriakou, and Waterboarding

Charles Kaiser takes on ABC's torture coverage

This article originally appeared on December 17, 2007, at radaronline.com. It is reposted here with the permission of the rightsholder, Charles Kaiser.

One night last week, ABC’s World News Tonight with Charles Gibson led with what seemed, at first, to be a spectacular scoop: an exclusive interview with an ex-CIA agent who revealed that waterboarding had worked like a magic bullet on one of the first important terrorists captured by the United States since 9/11. Before torture, Abu Zubaydah had told his CIA interrogators nothing useful; after 35 seconds of waterboarding—presto change-o—he told everything he knew, disrupting “a number of attacks—or maybe dozens.”

The piece by veteran investigator Brian Ross about ex-CIA man John Kiriakou was dream television—the kind of story an executive producer locked in a neck-and-neck ratings race with NBC’s Nightly News might torture for himself. The CIA man was young, good-looking, amiable, and articulate; he had “high Q score” (TV-speak for likability) written all over him. A longer version of the same piece aired later that evening on Nightline.

Both pieces worked beautifully—as public service announcements in favor of torture. This was a happy coincidence for an administration fighting desperately to preserve its right to violate the Geneva Convention. The House has just passed a bill that would force the CIA to go back to that hopelessly 20th-century notion that we have a moral obligation to behave like a civilized nation, but the Administration still has high hopes of killing that idea yet again in the Senate.

The ABC piece was presented as an open-and-shut case in favor the CIA’s techniques. Best of all—giving it the gloss of balance—Kiriakou is now having second thoughts about waterboarding. Now he thinks it is torture, and we probably shouldn’t do it anymore. But the first time around, if we hadn’t done it, and there had been another attack, he “wouldn’t have been able” to sleep at night. By the way, Kiriakou said that he never participated in the waterboarding himself, so everything he told us is second-hand, including the 35 seconds he says it took for the waterboarding to take effect.

That was what passed for balance in this piece: a single source who never saw what he described, providing all the details and acknowledging just a tad of ambivalence about the whole thing. No time to show any of the 45 retired American generals and admirals who think waterboarding is illegal and ineffective; nothing from John McCain; nothing from any human rights activists.

That might have been defensible if the story was as black and white as ABC portrayed it. Unfortunately, almost every single “fact” offered by the retired CIA man—including the claim that it was waterboarding that turned the terrorist into a useful source—was directly contradicted in a piece by Katherine Eban, which was posted last summer on vanityfair.com.

It turns out that ABC’s amiable source is at the center of an all-out war between the CIA and the FBI over which agency actually got the terrorist Abu Zubaydah to talk—and whether or not any of the CIA’s coercive techniques were useful, or totally counterproductive. But Brian Ross never mentioned that. Here are some of the discrepancies between the ABC and the Vanity Fair versions:

* The FBI says that after Zubaydah was shot during the effort to capture him, he was stabilized at the nearest hospital. There, the FBI questioned him, using its typical rapport-building techniques. An FBI agent showed him photographs of suspected al Qaeda members until Zubaydah finally spoke up, blurting out that “Moktar,” or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had planned 9/11. He then laid out the details of the plot. According to Eban, “America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely”—exactly the opposite of what ABC reported.

* ABC’s CIA man says he was the first person to speak to Zubaydah when he came out of his coma, and he learned nothing useful from him before he was waterboarded. The FBI says no CIA man was present when Zubaydah first started to talk.

* Vanity Fair says Zubaydah’s cooperation actually evaporated “with the arrival of the CIA’s interrogation team.”

* According to Eban, after Zubaydah clammed up, the CIA was left to conclude that Zubaydah would talk only when he had been reduced to complete helplessness and dependence.

Eventually, the FBI withdrew its team, and the CIA began to use the coercive techniques, which ABC’s source said included waterboarding.

That’s just about the only thing the two stories agree on—that Zubaydah was eventually tortured. Was Kiriakou Ross’s only source, making this a single-source story? Ross didn’t say that he had any corroboration, and an ABC spokesman wouldn’t comment. Surely Ross knew about this competing, opposite version of his source’s story. But when I sent him an e-mail laying out all of these discrepancies, this was his only reply:

I thought John Kiriakou’s interview was newsworthy because it was the first time someone from inside the CIA had confirmed the use of waterboarding on terror suspects. His version of events was one not previously heard, even though you and others may not agree with it. Your questions are good ones and worth raising, but anyone following ABC News coverage of the issue over the last several years would be familiar with the full range of legal, moral, and operational questions having to do with the CIA’s interrogation techniques. Kiriakou’s voice was a new one added to the debate.

This, of course, does not explain why Ross never mentioned the existence of a diametrically opposite version of these events, or why he was so certain that Kiriakou was telling the truth. In fact, in the portion of the interview shown on the air, Ross almost never challenged Kiriakou about anything. Those choices violated just about every journalistic standard of fairness and thoroughness that I can think of.

What makes this particularly sad is the fact that Ross is widely regarded as one of the most serious reporters on network television—and human rights activists credit him with breaking many genuinely important stories about torture.

Final Strange Fact: This was only one of two stories that John Kiriakou starred in on ABC last week. The other one—also featured on World News Tonight and Nightline—described how the ex-CIA man was hired by Paramount Pictures to go to Afghanistan to rescue the young cast members whose lives might have been endangered by the opening of the The Kite Runner. Which story did Kiriakou come to the network with first? An ABC spokesman would not comment.

Postscript: Eight days after Ross’s story aired, and one day after FCP commented on it, Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post published a definitive account of the ongoing war between the CIA and the FBI over who Zubaydah was and how he should have been questioned. The Post’s piece did everything Ross had failed to do.

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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.