Above the Fold: Times Tongue Tied on Torture

Cheney's waterboarding admission gets no play from NYT

There are times when news judgment is so bad that it seems to come close to criminal negligence. That is the case with the recent coverage of torture by the news department of The New York Times.

This week, Vice President Richard Cheney said, on the record and on camera to Jonathan Karl of ABC News, that he had personally encouraged and authorized waterboarding and other forms of torture—acts which every American administration since the dawn of the twentieth century has defined as war crimes. Every administration, except the present one.

Here are the key passages of that interview:

KARL: Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

CHENEY: I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.

KARL: In hindsight, do you think any of those tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others went too far?

CHENEY: I don’t…

KARL: And on KSM, one of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?


The New York Times did not deem any of the vice president’s remarks worthy of mention in its newspaper or on its Web site.

According to Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 160 prisoners have died in U.S. custody during the Bush administration, of which “more than 70 were linked to gross recklessness, abuse, or torture”—in other words, as a direct result of the torture techniques which Cheney has now admitted were personally authorized by him.

As the indispensable Scott Horton of Harper’s explained after the Cheney interview:

[Waterboarding] has been defined as torture by the United States since at least 1903, the first military court-martial. The United States views waterboarding conducted for intelligence purposes during wartime as a war crime, and it has prosecuted both civilian and military figures involved in the chain of approval of its use. Penalties applied have ranged up to the death penalty. The crime is chargeable under the War Crimes Act and under the Anti-Torture Statute. There is no ambiguity or disagreement among serious lawyers on this part, and Cheney’s suggestion that what he did was lawful and vetted is the delusional elevation of political hackery over law.

As FCP has pointed out many times before, waterboarding was also the favorite torture technique of the Nazi Gestapo during World War II.

Former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean said on Keith Olbermann’s show that Cheney should be prosecuted—especially since he now boasts publicly of his crimes.

I queried New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet, and torture reporters Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti as to why none of them thought that the vice president’s comments deserved a story—or whether, perhaps, I had missed the story in the Times. I received no reply. I followed up with this message: “I take it from your collective silence that there was no coverage of Cheney’s interview with ABC in the paper or on the website, and, therefore, that you are all in agreement that there was nothing newsworthy about it.” So far no answer to that one, either. (Back in June, retired major general Anthony Taguba wrote “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes.” The Times also ignored that one.)

A couple of days before Cheney’s interview on ABC News, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a bi-partisan report accusing the president of acts which clearly qualify as war crimes. Among the report’s key findings:

The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority….”The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Any reasonably sentient editor would have led with a story on that report, with at least a two-column, two-deck headline in the upper right hand corner of the front page. Messrs. Shane and Mazzetti kissed it off instead with 800 words, buried on page A14.

Scott Horton explained the problem to FCP this way: “The consistent theme is trust of governments—they couldn’t possibly be doing the nasty things their critics say. And of course for the correspondents involved, it is and was so much more comfortable doing their reportage while maintaining friendly contacts with the governments. That’s the key failure—failure of critical detachment.”

The only thing that saved the paper’s honor on this subject was a superb editorial by Andrew Rosenthal, which appeared in the Times yesterday. The paper called for the appointment of a prosecutor, because the “Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

The report shows how actions by these men “led directly” to what happened at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in secret C.I.A. prisons.”

Horton summarized the contrast between the Times’s news department and editorial page this way:

This lengthy editorial highlights another sore spot: the paper’s news coverage. Why did the Times need to take 1237 words to present their editorial? Because, scrambling through the paper’s news pages for the last weeks, you will strain to find a glimpse of the essential facts upon which the editorial rests. Neither have the news pages contained any meaningful analysis of the Levin-McCain report and its broader significance. Much of the reporting has been pedestrian, and some of it has been infantile and unprofessional. For instance, the issue crept onto the front page just over a week ago with a report about Senator Diane Feinstein’s wavering from an anti-torture position in a piece that explained, relying on shadowy intelligence community sources with an unmistakable agenda, what a difficult time Obama would have implementing his anti-torture pledge. The only problem–in addition to the fact that the central premise of the article was fake news–was that Senator Feinstein didn’t waver, her remarks were misquoted, and the Times had to run a correction (though it failed to muster the honesty to note that this was what it was doing).

The problem with most reporters is that they have very little sense of history, beyond the week before last. In Paris, during the Nazi occupation, there were many “respectable people” who remained silent–or strongly defended the Nazis, and, by implication, the techniques they used to contain “ insurgents,” including waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Many of those French apologists were journalists. Their reputations declined rather sharply after Paris was liberated by the Allies.

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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.