Sunday, March 06, 2005

"Rule Change Lets C.I.A. Freely Send Suspects Abroad" says this morning's New York Times

On the front page of this morning's paper, Douglas Jehl and David Jonhnston have an article entitled "Rule Change Let's C.I.A. Freely Send Suspects Abroad: Interrogation At Issue: Official Defends Program as Being Helpful in Effort on Terror."

There are so many problems with this article that it's hard to figure out where to begin.

A single source (and an anonymous one at that) is the basis for this article (that's the "official" who "defends program"). A single source? Oh how the standards have fallen. The Times isn't even pretending these days.

Jehl has strong sources at the CIA and that allows him to write some revealing pieces, this isn't one of them. Time and again, this reads like an excuse for the CIA. (If an "official" wants to make an excuse, he or she should be willing to go on the record. With this agency, the Times has never felt the need to hold it to the same standards it holds other government agencies to. And make no mistake, or don't make the mistake the article does, the CIA is a governmental agency.)

Early on they (the authors and/or whomever did or did not do a rewrite on this piece) note that the policy of rendention (a policy that itself is not addressed until late in the article) "has been bitterly criticized by human rights groups on the grounds that the practice has violated the Bush administration's public pledge to provide safeguards against torture."

There's so much wrong there it's hard to decide where to begin. How about noting that "public pledge" or not, we have signed on treaties pledging not to take part in torture. As a nation, this pledge goes beyond the Bully Boy's lips and starts long before he muscled his way into the Oval Office -- and the Convention Agaisnt Torture is a little too important to be reduced to a breezy aside as it is in this article.

Let's go to a New Yorker Q&A with Jane Mayer (conducted by Amy Davidson):

Mayer: The United Nations Convention Against Torture and U.S. law both have a blanket prohibition against torturing anyone either within the territorial boundaries of the U.S. or abroad. These laws also prohibit the U.S. government from extraditing non-nationals to third countries where there are "substantial grounds for believing" that they would be tortured. The imprecision of this clause, however, appears to have allowed for a fair amount of latitude, according to lawyers whom I interviewed for this piece. For instance, Martin Lederman, a former lawyer with the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel -- who did not deal with the cases while he was in office but has studied them since -- suggested that what looks at first like a complete prohibition actually is not. The legal standard allows U.S. officials to argue that they didn't know with any certainty that a suspect would be tortured, and so can't be held liable. U.S. officials have in fact often sought what is known as "assurances" from countries to which they have rendered suspects that the suspects would not be tortured. Even if these assurances are just a wink and a nod, they may provide legal cover. Finally, some lawyers believe that the U.S. may be finding protection by never formally taking legal custody of suspects it renders abroad -- even if, for instance, the U.S. government transports such suspects. Such details are difficult to find out about, however, because the program is secret.

Back to the Times (which allows the secrecy to continue), how about noting that our participation in torture made the recent human rights watch release by the State Department (focusing on other countries) such a joke? (This can be done via many of the public statements made by officials in other countries since the report has been released. Yes, "officials" -- the Times' lifeblood.) How about the fact that the criticism also comes from those who believe in open government and/or the concept of seperation of powers?

No, it's just those "human rights group." (I'm not insulting human rights group. I'm thankful we have them. They do good work. I am stating that the criticism goes beyond the criticism deriving from human rights group but the Times story seeks to marginalize the protesting as coming from only one section.)

The official is allowed to put out the spin (and the Times offers no one, named or otherwise, to question it, so the Times accepts this spin) that rendention is really just a cost-cutting measure.
See, it's expensive to house all these potential "terrorists." Well refrain from admiring the Bully Boy's concern for the overhead cost since we're talking about a subject (torture) that is repugnant and goes against the very fabric of what the United States is supposed to stand for.

Oh, we've had torture in our history, no question. We've tortured confessions (true or false confessions). And when that's been proven in a court of law, the response has generally been to say, "You can't do that." The official, the Bully Boy and, apparently, the Times seems to think you can . . . as long as it takes place elsewhere. They're operating under some misguided "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" principle -- one that might be a boom for the Nevada tourist industry, but not a policy the courts have recognized.

While going on and on about what the adminstration has allowed the CIA to do, the official never brings up Congress (nor do the authors -- which may include others at the Times besides Jehl and Johnston). No question, the Congress has long abdicated their oversight role. But just because they've made that choice doesn't mean that they still don't have that power.

I'd assume Jehl and Johnston and others at the Times are familiar with both the Church and the Pike Committees. (We know Daniel Shorr is familiar with them but most of us long ago gave up on expecting any bravery from him -- something Lesley Stahl was probably the first to catch on to.) (His lack of bravery, that wasn't a slam against Stahl.)

Congress needs to be utilizing their oversight power. And in this "historical" article (to use Condi's parlance), the Times is remiss in acting as though the matter begins and ends with directives from the executive branch. (It also seems like the article is an attempt at cutting off the judiciary before they begin hearing cases working their way through the legal system.) (My opinion.) (For people needing futher information on the government's previous attempt to cut off the judicial branch from these cases, read, watch or listen to "U.S. Claims Maher Arar "Extraordinary Rendition" Lawsuit Jeopardizes National Security" at Democracy Now!)

This is a historical article in other ways as well. The situation we're in now is a direct response to the press clampdown (starting with CBS, but there aren't a lot of operations that can hold their heads high) on the Pike Committee which elected to withhold it's report and the press (many in the press, certainly the larger press organs) elected to along with that. Out of fear of reprisal? More likely out of a fear of a too informed public. (And yes, the Times was one of those large press organizations engaging in that clampdown.) More sh*t is swept under the carpet out of the clutch-the-pearls journalistic concept of "national unity" than anything else and I'd argue "national unity" really means, we don't want to address things that might really get the citizenry angry. Depending upon where you stand, it's either called "taste" or it's called being "timid."

While Cokie Roberts personifies the clutch-the-pearls school of journalism, she's far from the only practioner. And the New York Timid is clutching the pearls today.

The level of outrage you feel over this article will rise in proportion to how much you know about the Church Committee or the Pike Committee. And how much you know about the clampdown.
(Yes, Shorr was fired before anyone rushes to defend him. But as was pointed out in real time -- though some huge hole seems to have swallowed any recollections of it -- Shorr initially allowed Stahl to be suspected of his actions. And CBS's many excuses included that whether they did a story on it or not -- gee, sounds like Judy Miller here -- the report was CBS's property and not to be leaked. "Allowed Stahl to be suspected" is, my opinion, a generous version of what went down. Translation, if sharing air time with Cokie Roberts is hell, and it may very well be, Shorr's earned his spot beside her in the minds of some.)

So here's the news. Jehl and Johnston spoke to an unnamed official who's willing to concede ("does not dispute) that torture has occurred. That should be the lead. Instead, it's lost among rationalizations and asides.

There were checks in balances in place, the article goes to great length to offer that position:

The official said that guidelines enforced within the C.I.A. require that no transfer take place before the receiving country provides assurances that the prisoner will be treated humanely, and the United States personnel are assigned to monitor compliance.
"We get assurances, we check on those assurances, and we double-check on these assurances to make sure that people are being hanled properly in respect to human rights," the official said. The official said that compliance had been "very high" but added, "Nothing is 100 percent unless we're sitting there staring at them 24 hours a day."

Get past the inclusion of the bromide ("Nothing is 100 percent . . .") and note that guidelines can't be enforced, despite what an official says, if we're sending to countries that regularly engage in torture.

And let's note also from the above that this supervision that appears to have failed (because we're not "sitting there staring at them 24 hours a day") ignores the realities of what Mamdough Habib has asserted publicly. And not just elsewhere but in the pages of the Times (largely on Saturdays, largely in Raymond Bonner's articles). They also could have included an "official" (they love their officials at the paper of record) with a name attached from the Australian government weighing in if they'd so desired.

Habib's asserting that US intell was present for some of it and that they listened in when they weren't present. That really doesn't fit with the bromide and rosy picture an unnamed official is attempting to paint (and someone at the Times is furnishing him with a broad canvas). He also asserts torture at the hands of Americans.

And guess, what, it can all be found in the pages of the Times previously.

January 29th, Raymond Bonner's "Australian's Long Path In the U.S. Antiterrorism Maze:"

. . . what distinguishes Mr. Habib's case are the severity of the accusations on both sides - the Americans' allegations of his connection to Sept. 11, and his charges, in legal papers made public earlier this month, that he was subjected to a process called "rendition," under which the United States sent him to Egypt. There, he says, he was tortured with beatings and electric shocks, and hung from the walls by hooks.
In a statement, the Department of Defense said, "There is no evidence that any Australian detainee in D.o.D. custody was tortured or abused." United States officials have acknowledged using renditions but say they do not condone torture. Australian officials confirmed that Mr. Habib was indeed taken to Egypt, and added that when they interviewed him at Guantánamo, he told them of being beaten and given electric shocks in Egypt.In separate interviews, three senior Australian officials agreed to discuss the case on condition of anonymity, in part because they were discussing intelligence material and sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Moreover, some of what they said went beyond what has been asserted publicly. . . .

Back to Amy Davidson's New Yorker Q&A with Jane Mayer:

Mayer: During those three weeks, according to Habib, he was questioned by several American-accented English-speaking interrogators, who he said wore no military uniforms. Margulies said that the U.S. Department of Defense seemed to have access to the confessions that Habib made after he was rendered from Pakistan to Egypt, because they accused him of offenses he confessed to while, he claimed, he was being tortured. If this is the case, the lines between the U.S.'s conduct and that of allied intelligence agencies does appear to have been blurred. And, after his interrogation in Egypt, Habib ended up in American custody -- as a prisoner in Guantánamo Bay.

Jane Mayer (or as the Timid refers to her, "The New Yorker") has explored this case (and others) in detail. But Raymond Bonner's done a strong job at the Times -- apparently work that's either been ignored or that editors wish to undue today with this front page story.

The article bearing Jehl & Johnston's byline isn't reporting, it's white washing. (And again, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they're responsible for the final version that appears in this morning's paper.) We're talking about a very serious issue here and, to read the story, we get "sh*t happens" and only some human rights groups care about this anyway. That's the attitude of the piece.

I wonder what a real paper (some must exist in this country, somewhere) would have done with this story? I can't imagine that they'd have fluffed the front page. (I also doubt the Washington Post, if they ran this, would have allowed the piece to be so compromised.)

Go to Democracy Now! and search this subject (the Times' brief section -- Bully Boy's Greatest Torture Hits? -- notes Maher Arar, Khaled el-Masri and Mamdouh Habib. Arar and Habib have been covered in detail by Democracy Now!).

Some DN! stories worth listening to, watching or reading on this include: "U.S. Claims Maher Arar "Extraordinary Rendition" Lawsuit Jeopardizes National Security," "Canadian Man Deported by U.S. Details Torture in Syria," "Canadian Citizen Deported to Syria By U.S. Returns Home to Montreal After Spending A Year in Damascus Jail," "Canada Warns Its Citizens About Traveling in the United States: Advisory Comes After U.S. Officials Secretly Detain a Canadian Citizen and Deports Him to Syria, Where He Hasn't Lived in 14 Years," especially pay attention to "EXCLUSIVE: British Human Rights Lawyer Gareth Peirce Says Torture "Is the Recipe for the Destruction" of International Human Rights" (and wonder why the "balance" principal went out the window as the Times elected not to quote any legal experts for this morning's article),
and don't miss their interview with Jane Mayer, "Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America's "Extraordinary Rendition."

Read Jane Mayer's "Outsourcing Torture."

But you can also read (if you pay for it online or if you clipped it in real time) Douglas Jehl, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis' "C.I.A. Is Seen as Seeking New Role on Detainees." From that article:

The Central Intelligence Agency is seeking to scale back its role as interrogator and custodian of terrorist leaders who are being held without charges in secret sites around the world, current and former intelligence officials said.
The internal discussions, they said, reflect the agency's growing discomfort with what is increasingly seen as an untenable position. The C.I.A.'s current leadership is concerned, the officials said, that the legal authority for interrogations and detentions is eroding, and that there is no clear plan for how the agency can extricate itself from what could be a lengthy task of holding and caring for a small population of aging terrorists whose intelligence value is steadily evaporating and who are unlikely ever to be released or brought to trial.

The Times knows what's going on, they've even reported on it themselves. They're just stuck in their New York Timid pose yet again and doing readers a disservice.

[For some real time coverage here see "What the Fluff Patrol (Sanger, Stevenson & Bumiller) left out of Thursdays with Bully Boy," '"Detainee Says He Was Tortured in U.S. Custody," Raymond Bonner's front page story on this morning Times,' and"Douglas Jehl's CIA article should be on the front page of this morning's New York Times.")