The Press and Torture
EXTRA! Read all about it in the Washington Post: Torture worked; Cheney and torture practitioners vindicated; morale at CIA harmed.
It seems coverage of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” has been put back on track by the editors of the Washington Post and their “sources,” who appear determined to highlight the supposed successes of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
In the last few days the Post has markedly increased its effort to “catapult the propaganda” (to borrow a phrase from former President George W. Bush). When the wind is still, Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels can be heard cheering from the grave.
Frankly, I was wondering when this return to form would happen at the Post. I was surprised to see Post journalists recently losing their grip, so to speak, and falling into the practice of reporting real facts — like the sickening revelations in the long-suppressed CIA Inspector General’s report on torture.
Apparently they have now been reminded of the biases of the newspaper’s top brass, forever justifying the hardnosed “realism” of the Bush administration as it approved brutal and perverse methods for stripping the “bad guys” of their clothes, their dignity, their sense of self – all to protect America.
Hooded, threatened with a cocked gun and an electric drill, deprived of sleep for long periods, beaten, kept naked or dressed in diapers, forced into painful stress positions, locked in tiny boxes and subjected to the near-drowning of waterboarding, the terrorism suspects were supposed to be terrorized into what the CIA psychologists called “learned helplessness.”
And to read the Washington Post’s account, it all worked, transforming alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed from a “truculent enemy” into what the CIA considered its “preeminent source” on al-Qaeda.
The Post made the story of this transformation – “How a Detainee Became an Asset: Sept.11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding” – its lead story Saturday. To drive home the central point, the Post declared that “this reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.”
But the story contained some weird contradictions that might have given pause to a less credulous – or less biased – newspaper. For example, the Post’s two unnamed sources who told the tale of Mohammed’s transformation depicted him as anything but a broken man suffering from “learned helplessness,” terrified of more torture. Instead, Mohammed, known as KSM, is described as holding forth like a professor in a lecture hall, pontificating about Greek philosophy and criticizing his American students for their shortcomings. “In one instance, he scolded a listener for poor note-taking and his inability to recall details of an earlier lecture,” the Post wrote.
So, instead of a cowering figure induced to talk out of fear that he might be subjected to a 184th session of waterboarding, Mohammed appears to be a boastful narcissist who views himself as a historic figure – exactly the sort of interrogation subject who would be susceptible to flattery and other successful, non-violent strategies favored by experienced FBI interrogators.
If the “learned helplessness” had worked – and was the reason Mohammed was talking – would he really have risked scolding an American interrogator, like an angry teacher chastising an inattentive schoolboy?
However, that is not a question the Post asks or its editors apparently want the readers to think much about. The story is written as if the Post writers Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate are seeking expiation for their sins of writing fact-and-document-based stories in recent days.
Back to the Steno Pool
The Post management, it seems, is determined to return to its past practice of acting as stenographers for the CIA’s PR machine. On Sunday, the Post had its steno pad out again, taking dictation about how torture investigations were harming CIA morale. The story, titled “Ex-Intelligence Officials Cite Low Spirits at CIA: IG Report’s Release, Looming Investigation Into Detainee Interrogations Blamed” by Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick, filled nearly half of Page Two.
The CIA is the only agency of the U.S. government that elicits the Post’s hand-wringing concern about its morale and “spirits.” It’s as if CIA officers were fragile Southern belles at risk of being overcome by “the vapors” if a harsh word is uttered in the parlor.
It’s hard to recall any similar concern expressed by the Post over poor morale at other government offices, say, the Environmental Protection Agency when President George W. Bush was ignoring evidence of global warming or the Justice Department when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was firing prosecutors for not going after Democrats.
But the delicate “spirits” of the CIA work force are something that the Post never ceases to worry about. So Pincus and Warrick ran to some “ex-CIA officials” to gauge the morale damage that the torture disclosures had caused.
It turns out that many of these “ex-CIA officials,” cited in the Post article, are folks with the most to lose if Attorney General Eric Holder starts unraveling the sordid tale of torture, assassination, kidnapping, you name it over which they had purview and in which they were involved.
The Post article was accompanied by a photo of A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, who laments that “morale at the agency is down to minus 50.” To their credit, I suppose, Pincus and Warrick do note that Krongard was the “third-ranking CIA official at the time of the use of harsh practices,” but there is no specific statement that Krongard and other worriers about CIA morale just might have some huge self-interest in discouraging investigations.
Post readers are not alerted, for instance, to Krongard’s history as the official who gave Blackwater, the ex-CIA-official-dominated firm sometimes called Assassination Inc., its initial contract, nor that he joined Blackwater’s Board of Directors after retiring from the CIA. Nor that with the help of his brother, the State Department’s Inspector General, he helped block congressional inquiries into alleged Blackwater illegalities.
Instead, the Post treats Krongard as a reliable source and the Obama administration’s release of torture-related documents as a policy blunder.
“One former senior official said President Obama was warned in December that release of the Justice Department memos sanctioning harsh interrogation methods would create an uproar that could not be contained,” the Post reported, quoting the official as saying:
“They [the White House] thought that it would be a two-day story; they were wrong.”
“Warning” the President of the United States! Who’s running this country, anyway?
Loving the Inquisition
In Saturday’s front-page story, the Post was even more obvious about which side it was taking on the issue of torture and the efficacy of using brutal methods to extract information.
Warming the cockles of Dick Cheney’s heart, the Washington Post was “confirming” that waterboarding and sleep deprivation worked — just as we were told by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, on May 13 at a hearing on detainee interrogation that included an implicit tip of the hat to all manner of infamous torture past:
“The Vice President [Cheney] is suggesting that there was good information obtained, and I’d like the committee to get that information. Let’s have both sides of the story here. I mean, one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work.”
Five hundred years takes us proudly back to the Spanish Inquisition when the cardinals at least had no problem calling a spade a spade. Their term for waterboarding was tortura del agua. No euphemism like “enhanced interrogation technique” or EIT, for short.
As for Cheney’s earlier claim that two CIA documents would prove that the EITs were effective — the two were released this week, and they prove nothing of the kind. Together with others, they do indicate that detainees like KSM provided important intelligence on al-Qaeda and its plans. But they fail to support the contention that it was the use of harsh techniques (as opposed to traditional interrogation methods) that yielded the information.
The Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman, who has been covering all this like a blanket, notes that the two documents actually suggest that non-abusive interrogation techniques were primarily responsible for eliciting the most important information cited in the two documents.
In short, Cheney is no closer to proving that "torture works," than he was before the release of those two documents to which he gave so much fanfare. Indeed, given how the two fizzled out, he is now farther away from making that case, except in the eyes of senior editors at the Washington Post and other outlets of the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM).
Water and Sleep
For years now, the FCM has largely succeeded in trivializing “water torture.” So who’s afraid of a little water? Don’t those Muslims know how to hold their breath, like we do at Rehoboth? And besides, we waterboarded our own troops in training, without adverse effect. Are Americans so dumbed down that they cannot see the difference between a U.S. military training exercise, during which a simple gesture will stop the torture, and the real thing?
And how well did torture work on KSM? If one examines the record more carefully, it turns out that the alleged 9/11 mastermind was uncooperative and deceptive during the torture. When U.S. authorities finally let KSM be interviewed by the Red Cross, he said this (which was shoehorned onto page 6 of the Post, presumably to provide the article some semblance of “balance”):
“During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop. I later told interrogators that their methods were stupid and counterproductive.
“I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time.”
Ask FBI investigators and others sent on wild goose chases to check out such “information”; in candid moments they will corroborate what KSM has to say on that key point.
Getting What You Want
It boggles the mind what information one can extract by torture. A U.S. Army interrogator with long experience in conducting interrogations, and in training others in traditional Army techniques, recently told me this:
“Give me no restrictions, and allow me to use non-traditional techniques, and I promise you I can get a detainee to confess to having launched, solo, not one but two successful suicide bombings!”
The FCM’s dismissive attitude toward waterboarding goes in spades for sleep deprivation. One hears things like: We’ve all gone without sleep — preparing for exams, for example. We know what it’s like, and it’s no big deal. And, anyway, these are bad guys.
Not so fast. It’s difficult to say that sleep deprivation is worse than waterboarding, but it is just as torturous. Much can be learned from Darius Rejali, a scholar who is one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on torture and its consequences. The paragraphs that follow are drawn largely from his book, Torture and Democracy.
Israeli terrorist and later prime minister, Menachem Begin, describing the sleep deprivation inflicted on him when he was a prisoner of the KGB as a young man, observed that anyone subjected to this condition knows that “not even hunger or thirst are comparable to it.”
Experts now agree that sleep deprivation is a basic, and potentially dangerous, physiological-need state, similar to hunger or thirst and as basic to survival. Sleep-deprived people are highly suggestible (a condition not unlike drunkenness or hypnosis), making sleep deprivation ideal for inducing false confessions.
Rejali gives a 15th-century Italian lawyer “credit” for introducing this technique into the Inquisition’s toolkit. But Inquisitional interrogators soon became aware of the unreliable character of information acquired through sleep deprivation, and the preferred technique became the rack.
The Gestapo used sleep deprivation among other “Verschäfte Vernehmungen” — sharpened interrogation techniques. Against whom? You guessed it; against “Terroristen.”
Sleep deprivation also was in the quiver of British interrogators in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and is still included in current Israeli procedures. And after 9/11, the CIA and the military were authorized to take the technique out of mothballs and apply it in interrogations — with terrific results, if you believe Page One of the Washington Post.
For additional context, it may be worth citing what Rejali says about the experience of using sleep deprivation in the U.S.:
“American courts finally barred sleep deprivation for domestic policing during World War II. In 1941 Tennessee police subjected one suspect to sleep deprivation and interrogation for thirty-six hours until he confessed he had killed his wife….
“In 1944, the Supreme Court not only tossed out the confession as unacceptable in any democratic society,” but drew a link between sleep deprivation and “the practices of certain foreign nations dedicated to…physical or mental torture.”
Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured as the writers of the 9/11 Commission were preparing their report. If we think he was the mastermind behind the attacks, then ask him why he did it, was their understandable request. The answer was quite telling.
Mohammed had attended North Carolina A&T in Greensboro; thus, initial speculation regarding his motive centered on the supposition that he had suffered some gross indignity accounting for his hatred for America. Not so. Rather, as the 9/11 Commission reported on page 147:
“By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experience there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”
Yesterday’s Washington Post article offers a revisionist view. It seems Mohammed’s initial response was found to be politically incorrect by implicating “U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” Perhaps after a few more sessions of waterboarding or a few more days of sleep deprivation he came up with a more acceptable explanation of his motivation. Or perhaps the Post has been selective in picking and choosing among the various things that came out of reports from his interrogation.
In any event, without so much as a word as to why his story has changed, the Post now would have us believe that the following is the real reason:
“KSM’s limited and negative experience in the United States — which included a brief jail stay because of unpaid bills — almost certainly helped propel him on his path to becoming a terrorist,” according to the [CIA] intelligence summary. “He stated that his contact with Americans, while minimal, confirmed his view that the United States was a debauched and racist country.”
A telling revision, indeed.
But let’s also look for a moment at “debauched and racist” on its own merits. Could the hated Khalid Sheik Mohammed be speaking some truth here? If he and other Middle Eastern Muslims looked and dressed more like us, would it be so easy to demonize them – and to torture them?
Would the Washington Post’s editors be so supportive if representatives of a more favored ethnic or religious group were stripped naked before members of the opposite sex, put in diapers, immobilized with shackles in stress positions for long periods, denied sleep and made to soil themselves?
In my view, racism is very much at play here.
And “debauched?” Just read the CIA Inspector General report and decide for yourself.
And please: don’t stop with a “Tsk, tsk; those interrogators were certainly debauched.” We — all of us — let it happen. We — all of us — need to ensure that our country does not descend again into such depravity.
The only way to do that is to hold ALL the rotten apples accountable, from the top to the bottom of the proverbial barrel.
RAY McGOVERN was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (Verso). He can be reached at: email@example.com
A shorter version of this article appeared at Consortiumnews.com.