Above the Fold: Ross Report Revisited

Kaiser on Stelter, Ross, and the 2007 CIA waterboarding interview

Brian Stelter reports on page one of The New York Times today that newly disclosed torture memoranda show how an interview conducted at the end of 2007 by ABC News had unfairly tilted the debate about waterboarding.

Stelter’s piece, beginning with its first sentence, is a model of incomplete reporting. This is his lede: “In late 2007, there was the first crack of daylight into the government’s use of waterboarding during interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees.”

This supposed “first crack” came because John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer interviewed by ABC’s Brian Ross, was the first CIA man to confirm on camera that the agency had waterboarded some of its prisoners. But this was hardly “the first crack of daylight” on this subject. As far back as May 13, 2004, New York Times reporters wrote on the front page that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been waterboarded by the CIA.

That’s the least of the problems with Stelter’s story this morning. His theme is that because Kiriakou told Brian Ross that Abu Zubaydah had started to cooperate thirty-five seconds after he was first waterboarded, dozens of other mainstream media outlets wrote stories which “heightened the public perception of waterboarding as an effective interrogation technique” and “lost in much of the coverage was the fact that Mr. Kiriakou had no firsthand knowledge of the waterboarding.”

Now that’s all true, as far as it goes—and as Stelter points out, the thirty-five-second presto change-o scenario Brian Ross reported now looks particularly ridiculous, since we have just learned that Zubaydah was waterboarded “at least 83 times.”

But here’s what Stelter’s story leaves out. At the same time that the mainstream media was uncritically repeating the claims in Brian Ross’s story, parts of the blogosphere immediately identified Ross’s report as the shoddy piece of journalism that it was. After noting that everything Kiriakou told Ross was “second-hand” information, “including the 35 seconds he says it took for the waterboarding to take effect,” here’s what FCP reported one week after Ross’s piece first aired:

• Six months before the ABC story aired, Katherine Eban had written a story for vanityfair.com which contradicted every single assertion the ex-CIA officer had made on World News Tonight.

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

• The FBI said 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.

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

Besides never reporting the fact that the FBI had given a diametrically opposite version of all of these events, Ross also failed to ask John Kiriakou a single hostile question during the portion of the interview that was shown on air. FCP’s bottom line: Ross’s choices “violated just about every journalistic standard of fairness and thoroughness that I can think of.”

This is what Brian Ross told FCP back then:

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.

Ross offers another version of that limp line of reasoning in today’s Times: “Kiriakou stepped up and helped shine some light on what has happening,” Mr. Ross said. “It wasn’t the huge spotlight that was needed, but it was some light.” This of course, implied that Ross’s piece was somehow anti-waterboarding.

The truth is, Ross’s pieces on both World News Tonight and Nightline were the most effective ads in favor of waterboarding I have ever seen, which is exactly what I wrote at the time.

One more thing Stelter left out this morning: last week, the Times published an op-ed piece by former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan which confirmed most of what Katherine Eban had written for Vanity Fair six months before Ross’s pathetic piece first aired.

Update: For a dissection of some of Ross’s other reporting triumphs, and an honor roll of right-wing pundits who regurgitated his shoddy reporting (Jonah Goldberg, Bill O’Reilly Brit Hume, and Charles Krauthammer, among others) see Glenn Greenwald’s excellent history here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.