Above the Fold: More Tortured Logic

Dick Cheney, Susan Crawford, Jim Lehrer, and "moving forward"

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts….Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial,…assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side….The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

– George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism,” May, 1945

The big news about torture last week was the declaration by Susan J. Crawford to Bob Woodward that the Bush administration had tortured Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man who allegedly planned to be the twentieth hijacker on September 11, but who was denied entry to the United States at the Orlando airport by an alert immigration inspector.

Not only was this the first on-the-record admission of torture by a current official of the Bush administration; Crawford’s words carried extra power because she is the person in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial. Crawford is also a former general counsel of the Army in the Reagan administration, and a former Pentagon inspector general when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense.

This disclosure led to a series of journalistic blunders. First, in an interview with Jim Lehrer on the NewsHour on Wednesday, Cheney said, “It’s entirely possible there was a problem in terms of how one specific prisoner was handled,” and, referring to the torture of prisoners (which Cheney still calls “enhanced interrogation”), the vice president added, “A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that.”

A more alert interviewer than Mr. Lehrer might have asked, if only one prisoner has been abused, how is it possible that at least 160 others prisoners have died  in U.S. custody during the Bush administration, including more than seventy whose deaths were caused by “gross recklessness, abuse, or torture,” according to the ACLU?

As for the claim that a great many American lives have been saved “because we did all that,” Lehrer really should have mentioned the fact that FBI Director Robert Mueller told David Rose, in an article for VanityFair.com in December, that he does not believe any attacks on America have been disrupted thanks to information obtained through so-called “enhanced techniques.”

When Bill Glaberson repeated these statements from Cheney to Lehrer in The New York Times the next day, also without mentioning any of the counter-evidence, I decided to ask Glaberson whether he was more aware than Lehrer was of why the vice president’s views were subject to challenge. Unfortunately, the Times reporter was not very enlightening. Here is the transcript of our entire conversation:

FCP: This is Charles Kaiser at the Columbia Journalism Review. I have a couple of questions about your q-head [news analysis] about torture.
WG: Yeah.
FCP “A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that,” Cheney said. Now I assume you’re aware of what Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, said about that.
WG: What do you mean?
FCP: About whether or not torture has saved any lives?
WG: Oh, yeah yeah yeah.  I mean, I know.  Yes.
FCP: What did he say?
WG: Whaaa..Am I being interviewed?  What’s going on here?
FCP: Yes, you’re being interviewed.  Yes, you are. Yes.
WG: Thank you, I decline.
FCP: That’s it?  You have nothing else to say?
WG: Correct.
FCP. OK, fine. Thanks a lot.

Meanwhile, the campaign to make America “look forward,” to prevent these crimes from being investigated or prosecuted, continued unabated, with those who are conducting the campaign taking comfort from Barack Obama’s statement to George Stephanopoulos last Sunday on ABC’s This Week:

OBAMA: We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that for example at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, no 9/11 Commission with independent subpoena power?

OBAMA: We have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation’s going to be to move forward.

With so much talk about “moving forward,” FCP decided to consult Marcia Chambers about this very unusual reluctance to hold law breakers accountable. Ms. Chambers has taught journalism at Columbia and Yale, and she has written for The New York Times as a reporter and a contributor for more than three decades. She also has the highest standards and the best instincts of any criminal justice reporter FCP has ever known. This is what she said:

In the old days there wasn’t all this angst about investigating public officials. It was understood that elected officials who hold the public trust are held to a higher standard than others, even others who commit crimes. When New York City cops were accused of corruption in the 1970’s, the Knapp Commission was formed to investigate. It was also routine for special grand juries to investigate public officials, and if there wasn’t sufficient evidence to indict, the panel might issue a report on its findings in order to examine a system or a process. The idea was accountability, an idea so obvious that it is difficult to understand why people are having such trouble with it now.

On the federal level, there were a number of investigations of the Iran Contra scandal that engulfed the Ronald Reagan presidency. The purpose of the 1986-87 Iran-Contra inquiries was to investigate possible crimes. It would have been unthinkable back then to say, let’s just move on, let’s put it behind us. We didn’t do it then. We shouldn’t do it now. The purpose of the law hasn’t changed.


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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.