Accuracy in Media

Human Rights First, a group of lawyers working with the ACLU on behalf of prisoners in the global War on Terror, gives the term “ambulance chaser” a bad name. Its website features a place where people can click and contact a lawyer “if you or your family member was subjected to abuse in Iraq or Afghanistan?” It’s not clear how the stories of abuse are documented but we do know that one client is identified as simply “Ali H.” and doesn’t use his full name because he “fears for his safety.” Their stories, which are shocking if true, are all being blamed on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is being sued in court “over U.S. torture policies.” But are the stories true? 

Because of some isolated cases of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, the prison facility in Baghdad, left-wing legal groups believe they can make all kinds of allegations against Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon and civilian leaders and that the charges will be greeted as credible by the media. But where is the proof?

The fact is that two major investigations have exonerated top Pentagon leaders of ordering or approving abuse of prisoners. One was headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and the other by Vice Admiral Albert Church. But that’s not what the Washington Post and New York Times wanted to hear and so they have run editorials rejecting the findings. Now the CIA has replaced the Pentagon as a convenient target. The intelligence agency is under fire for transferring suspected terrorists to other countries, a practice called rendition. 

The headline over the March 17 Dana Priest Washington Post story was direct: “CIA Challenged About Suspects’ Torture Overseas.” The use of torture was declared to be a fact. But the headline over the same story on the paper’s website was different: “CIA’s Assurances On Transferred Suspects Doubted.” The change may reflect awareness by some Post editor that the story, which was featured on page one of the print version of the paper, did not prove that the CIA approved, condoned, or even knew about the alleged torture of suspected terrorists shipped overseas. What’s more, absolutely no proof was cited of any torture taking place. The subheadline over the website version gave us the source of the torture allegations: “Prisoners Say Countries Break No-Torture Pledges.”

So allegations by prisoners constitute the source of the charge that they were tortured overseas. This is how the Post gives the benefit of the doubt to suspected terrorists, in order to make the CIA and the U.S. look bad in the global War on Terror.

It is apparent that the media, working in tandem with groups such as the ACLU and Human Rights First, are trying to make the case that there has been a conscious high-level Bush administration policy to torture terrorist prisoners, or at least look the other way and thereby condone it. But making the charge, as prisoners have done, and proving it, are two different things.

The Dana Priest story cites no proof of torture. Instead, it cites the case of Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, who “has alleged he was tortured in Egypt for six months after U.S. officials sent him there. Habib had been detained in Pakistan in October 2001 as a suspected al-Qaeda trainer. In Egypt, he alleges, he was hung by his arms from hooks, shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten. He was then sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and was released in February.”

What’s interesting is that there is no evidence presented that he was, in fact, tortured. The allegations are good enough. But the U.S. position―that prisoners are sent abroad with assurances from other countries that they handle prisoners humanely―is treated as a joke by anonymous sources. It’s “a farce,” says one “CIA officer” who, of course, is unnamed. A diplomat from an Arab country who works with the U.S. and the CIA “said it is unrealistic to believe the CIA really wants to follow up on the assurances,” Priest reported. The diplomat is, of course, anonymous. 

Let’s recap: First, prisoners are quoted uncritically as saying that they were tortured. Then, officials and diplomats are quoted anonymously as saying that the CIA has to know or suspect that the prisoners have been tortured abroad. Therefore, the U.S. stands guilty as charged.

Priest notes in passing that former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who was a media darling when he was perceived to be critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the War on Terror, “favors the use of renditions to disrupt terrorist networks.” He has said much more than that. He declared in a March 11, 2005, New York Times column that the policy of rendition of al-Qaeda terror suspects was also used under President Clinton and that, “in my 22 years at the agency I never saw a set of operations that was more closely scrutinized” by the agency, the executive branch and Congress.

It looks like the CIA’s rendition policy was scrutinized more closely than Dana Priest’s sorry excuse for an article. The Post tortured its readers. But who will hold the Post accountable?

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