Accuracy in Media

CBS’s 60 Minutes offered up a cleverly deceptive
story that makes the U.S.
government and military look extremely evil, building on a narrative that
continues to damage American interests at home and abroad. The story,
shown on March 30, was presented in such a way as to convince the audience that
it has discovered some awful truths about a man held prisoner in Afghanistan and later Guantanamo, and finally set free after years
of torture and abuse. The problem is that CBS left out or glossed over significant
information that might have made viewers wonder if this man was really telling
the truth. Clearly 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley wanted the viewers to
believe he was. But the truth might not be so clear.

The man is Murat Kurnaz, a German of Turkish
descent, who apparently had begun studying Islam in Germany before the horrific acts of
radical Islamic terror that occurred in this country on September 11, 2001.
According to his story, he had planned a trip to Pakistan to study his religion
before the events of 9/11 occurred, and went even after they had. He says that
in late 2001, he was removed from a bus taking him to the airport in Pakistan as he
was preparing to return home, by Pakistani police, because he was
light-skinned, and obviously of European descent.

This,
he says, was the start of a nightmare of torture and abuse that lasted years,
and even years after the FBI and American intelligence agencies knew he wasn’t
guilty of anything. He was held as an enemy combatant and released from prison after
nearly five years, at the request of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Now
he has written a book―Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in
Guantanamo
― which CBS seems more than happy to promote. He has
claimed he was a victim of waterboarding, electric shock, days of being hung up
by his arms, and humiliation by being taunted by scantily clad women. He also
says he witnessed the Koran being desecrated in front of him. These last
allegations weren’t mentioned by 60 Minutes.

During
the course of the report, 60 Minutes flashed some documents and carefully
pulled out some apparently damning quotes, but a closer examination raises
disturbing questions about CBS’s reporting. For instance, Pelley says that Kurnaz’s
lawyer obtained documents from military prosecutors that claim he had consorted
with someone who was a suicide bomber, but who was actually alive. Pelley asked
with obvious incredulity, “you either are or are not a suicide bomber, right?”
Well, not necessarily. How about someone who provides the explosives, the belt
to strap it on, and the indoctrination that leads someone to commit such acts?
In other words, this suicide/homicide bomber more likely just sends people
further down the pecking order to carry out such deeds. But in this case it
appears this person was confused with someone else with the same surname. Besides,
the document says only that the person is “possibly” a suicide bomber, and you
would only see that if you paused your TV recording at the just the right place.

Pelley
also stated that the FBI thought that Kurnaz was an “innocent man with no
connection to terrorism.” But while the FBI document,
which was posted on the CBS website, actually said that “there is no
investigative interest in this detainee,” it also said, “Although he has denied
being a member of the Jama’at al-Tabligh, his associates, travel and religious
studies contradict this denial. For these reasons, Karnaz is believed to pose a
[redaction of two words] to the national security of the United States
and its allies if released.” Jama’at al-Tabligh is generally described as an
Islamic missionary group.

Another
document,
which CBS posts on its website, is the response from the Department of Defense to
the 60 Minutes report. This is the most damning proof of CBS’s manipulation. Scott
Pelley quotes the report as saying that the claims of torture are “false” and
“absurd,” but he doesn’t mention the basis for their denials. What the DOD
points out are examples of evidence that Kurnaz is lying. CBS makes no mention
of them. The statement says that “many of his claims can be easily refuted based
on publicly available documents.”

The
statement goes on to cite his complaint that “he was grossly underweight while
at Guantanamo
because he was deprived of quality food. In fact, according to the list of
heights and weights of detainees released by the Department of Defense and
available on the internet, Mr. Kurnaz stayed, for the most part, well above his
ideal body weight contrary to his claims. Publicly available photos released
from his reunion also visually indicate a man of robust health at the end of
his detention.” Plus, the statement adds, “During his Combatant Status Review
Tribunal testimony, Mr. Kurnaz never mentions a single allegation of
mistreatment, neither during his time in Kandahar
nor in Guantanamo.”

So
why not report on any of these charges that might impeach Kurnaz’s credibility?
Because the story wouldn’t have the desired impact: To indict the U.S.
government and the Bush Administration for their actions during this very
difficult war we are in.

I
have no way of knowing whether this man is guilty of seeking to be part of
terrorist war against the U.S. Part of the reason he came under suspicion,
according to Pelley, was that his mother had told German authorities that her
son “had become more religious, had grown a beard, and was attending a new
mosque. Schoolmates said that Kurnaz might have been headed to Afghanistan,”
raising suspicions about what he was up to.

None
of this would justify in any way the sort of treatment that Kurnaz claims
happened to him. But there are two distinct issues here. One is how aggressive
the U.S.
can and should be in interrogating detainees. The other is the issue of what
legal avenues should be provided to enemy combatants. But the issue with this
60 Minutes story is how it was reported.

Pelley
cites others’ claims to have also been tortured, but he has no names. And that
some U.S.
military officials acknowledged that such torture took place, though again, no
names. And no specificity about what these U.S. soldiers said. Said Pelley: “Kurnaz
isn’t alone in these allegations. Other
freed prisoners have described electric shocks at Kandahar. And even U.S. troops have admitted beating
prisoners who were hanging by their arms. Kurnaz’s story fits a pattern.” This
is apparently the basis for believing Kurnaz’s story. No names, no facts.

What fits a pattern is 60 Minutes’ effort to
discredit the war, the administration, and the U.S. standing around the world. 60 Minutes had
a story they wanted to tell, and they were perfectly willing to leave out key
facts that would clearly have influenced what people thought about this man. They
show parts of documents to the millions of viewers who watch the show each
week, and leave others buried on their website for a fraction of the people to
dig out the rest of story.

Ironically
this show aired the same day that the remains of Army Staff Sergeant Matt Maupin
were publicly identified after being discovered. He was captured four years ago
this week, and, according to this TV station report from Maupin’s hometown of Cincinnati,
“the Arab television network Al-Jazeera aired a videotape showing Maupin
sitting on the floor surrounded by five masked men holding automatic rifles. On
June 28, a video purporting to show his execution was released, but Army
officials said the quality was so poor that it could not be verified.” This was
a stark, timely reminder of the potential consequences of irresponsible
reporting like this 60 Minutes story.




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