Accuracy in Media

In a May 2 letter to the Wall Street Journal, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, has defended his paper, as well as the Washington Post, for reporting on “secret doings” involving the CIA and NSA. He referred to these stories as being about “the detention of terror suspects in CIA facilities in Europe and eavesdropping on Americans without warrants?” Those are distorted versions of what these papers supposedly uncovered. They are so distorted that they constitute journalistic malpractice.

First, the Post claimed the existence of “secret prisons,” not “detention” facilities. A suspected terrorist can be detained in any number of ways, and nobody seriously doubts that they were detained in Europe on their way to certain locations. What made the Post story so sensational was the bold claim that the CIA maintained “secret prisons” in Europe. Post reporter Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer for this tabloid-style piece, even implied that the CIA prisons were like the old Soviet gulags. At this point, however, there’s no proof of the existence of such prisons. Perhaps this is why Keller didn’t use the term. It’s not an accurate reflection of what was actually in the Post article to call them “facilities,” whatever that means, but Keller just couldn’t bring himself to refer to the “secret prisons.”

What is a “facility” anyway? Nobody seriously doubts that the CIA operates abroad and conducts operations against enemies of America. Perhaps it maintains “safe houses” or other places and locations. But “secret prisons?”

There was absolutely no good that could come from the overblown Priest story. It could only serve the purpose of complicating the war on terrorism and sabotaging the practice of locating and transferring terrorists across Europe and the rest of the world. For exaggerating the story and transforming a secret program into something it was not, the Post wins a Pulitzer.

The Post should give back the Pulitzer, but that of course won’t begin to repair the damage done to U.S. relations with foreign countries that were once helpful to us. As the Post showed, disinformation can be even more damaging than the actual truth. A “leak” doesn’t have to be true; it only has to cite anonymous sources supposedly in the intelligence community.

Second, the idea that Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposed “eavesdropping on Americans without warrants” is laughable. The program targets the international communications of al-Qaeda operatives here and abroad. The idea that ordinary “Americans” are targeted by such a program is a fiction that ranks with the fabrications of Jayson Blair, fired by the Times for lying in print. Who are these ordinary Joes that are being hounded by the NSA? Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy has more accurately referred to the NSA program as seeking information about the war plans of our terrorist enemy. As such, the program was inherently authorized by the decision of the President, supported by Congress, to conduct a global war on terrorism.  After all, does it make any sense to assume that Congress authorized the President to wage war on terrorists but not to listen in on their conversations with their agents in the U.S.? That’s the implication of the extremely misleading Times story.

Yet this was transformed by the Pulitzer-hungry New York Times into a “scandal” for the Bush Administration. The paper is able to pull off this fraud on the public because it is still considered to have some degree of credibility and because the administration conceded that, at least in some respect, there was a kernel of truth behind the story. But like the “secret prisons” National Enquirer-like blockbuster, there was less to this story than met the eye. So the administration is using the NSA to spy on the enemy. What good was achieved by publicizing this fact? Why highlight this fact when such publicity can only alert the enemy to what we are trying to do to stop them from murdering more Americans? The answer is, this is why Risen distorted the program into something that was targeting John Doe and Joe Sixpack.

Another problem for Keller, who defends the indefensible, is that Risen, in his book, State of War, also refers to the alleged “secret prisons” in Europe. Now if Risen will use that term, why won’t Keller? And if Keller doubts their existence, why didn’t Risen?  The answer is that Risen seems to interpret anything involving national security to the detriment of the Bush Administration. When he heard about the “secret prisons” story, he accepted it, no questions asked. This is the name of the press game―to concoct scandals to be seized upon by other Bush-haters in the media. This is the nature of a feeding frenzy. But now we know that a Democrat partisan in the CIA was fired for having unauthorized contacts with Priest and others. Did she exaggerate the nature of the program in her conversations with Priest? Or did Priest blow the story out of proportion on her own? Then we found out that Priest’s husband is a left-wing political operative who works for a group promoting “international cooperation, demilitarization and respect for basic human rights.” And if you believe that’s all William Goodfellow’s Center for International Policy is about, then you will believe in “secret prisons” with no questions asked. I say put fired CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy under oath and find out what she knows about this curious and cozy relationship.

The Post and Times have operated in much the same way. If an NSA program going after the enemy becomes eavesdropping on Americans, then Post reporter Dana Priest’s story on “secret prisons” makes sense, too. This is how the game is played. Everything is interpreted to make the Bush Administration out to be the enemy. The terrorists benefit and Americans may die as a result. But the two papers have their prizes.

On that sticky matter of the “secret prisons,” it bears repeating that there’s absolutely no evidence, after three different investigations, that they existed. Keller has to know this because the facts have been reported in his own paper. That must explain why he couldn’t bring himself to use that term in his letter to the Journal. As they used to say in the Wendy’s commercial, “where’s the beef?” Where’s the proof? Or doesn’t hard evidence matter anymore?

One thing is clear: the real “secret doings” are occurring at the New York Times and the Washington Post, who use anonymous and partisan sources to report stories that they want us to believe without any questions asked. Those days are over. All the prizes in the world won’t dress up what they have done. Since the papers win prizes and applause from their colleagues, it appears that this despicable and half-baked “journalism” will end only when the secret “sources” and the journalists who use them face some time of their own in a not-so-secret prison.

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