(updated below -- updates I -V)
During a recent segment on CNN's AC 360, journalist and professor Mark Danner torpedoed CNN senior political analyst David Gergen's attempt to minimize new revelations of Bush administration CIA torture tactics released by the Obama administration.
Host Anderson Cooper and Danner first discussed the CIA torture memos, which included techniques such as waterboarding (as much as 183 times on one detainee in the same month), sleep deprivation for up to eleven straight days, and placement in a "confinement box" in which "stinging insects" were tossed to terrorize but not cause "death or severe pain."
Then Gergen opined:
GERGEN: At the same time, he [President Obama] made a very, very calibrated decision; we're not
going to prosecute those people in the CIA who undertook this. And I
think he showed some respect for the argument that Mr. Hayden and Mr.
Mukasey made today in The Wall Street Journal.
That, in fact, there may have been some benefit to the United States from these interrogation techniques. And very importantly, when we sort of take this broad brush and sort of paint this as sort of villainous, that, in fact, the number of people who were interrogated with these harsh and, I think, torturous techniques was fairly limited.
It was of the thousands of people who were captured it was about some 30 or 35 whom these techniques were used. And they make the argument -- and I don't know why we should question them -- that about half of what we know about Al Qaeda came out of those interrogation techniques.
First, Cooper deserves credit for not taking a generic phony Devil's advocate stance. He actually set up Danner's response to Gergen's allegations with...facts and context. Refreshing, no?
It seems that in the light of day, a lot of the people who were rounded up were just kind of -- there wasn't much investigation done. They were handed over by Northern Alliance troops or others in the case in Afghanistan. And a bunch of people ended up getting killed in U.S. custody.
Do we know how many people died in U.S. custody? I've read reports of more than 100 or about 100 or maybe about a quarter of those were being investigated as actual homicides.
Of course it would've been nice if Cooper confirmed these figures before airtime (doesn't he have researchers for this?), but the intellectual honesty was refreshing all the same.
And it worked against what was supposed to be its ultimate goal, which is finding intelligence that would help protect the country.
Then he pointedly refuted Gergen's claims:
I should point out that on his first full day in office he signed executive orders renouncing in the strongest terms the use of these techniques. He closed the black sites. He declared that he would close Guantanamo.
This is very odd behavior for a newly-elected President who is trying to protect the country and who believes that torture, according to David Gergen, is useful. He clearly doesn't believe that.
And I have to make one other point. David Gergen and I are both old enough to remember the Church Committee. What we have here is a haunting, in a sense, from the Church Committee. The Church Committee made deniability impossible. It made it necessary for the President actually to sign findings for covert action.
When President Bush came to the CIA after 9/11 and said we want to use these harsh techniques, the CIA, remembering the Church Committee of the '70s, said you know what? If you want us to do this, you're going to have to make it legal. We need a document that will show us it's legal.
And we are now at that point. We're looking at legal documents that purport to make what is plainly illegal legal. And they make -- supposedly make legal activities carried out over years...that plainly were illegal. And this is the new deniability, and something has to be done about it, I'm afraid.
Gergen accepted Danner's correction, acknowledging that Obama never "directly approved" of or said these techniques were "useful." Yet Gergen continued to downplay the torture committed, defended agents for just following orders and made another error for Danner to correct.
I just think that the conversations in this area have gotten so broad brush that it sort of paints a sort of villainous picture of the agency which I don't think -- I don't think is really fair to a lot of the people who were trying very hard, as Mark Danner himself said, to figure out what was legal in these very, very difficult circumstances.
As Danner jumped on this, Cooper, once again to his credit, didn't impede the flow of information with contrived balance nor did he bail out Gergen, his longtime CNN colleague. Rather, Cooper facilitated and contextualized Danner's response, closing the discussion by disproving Gergen's assertions with just the facts.
COOPER: And it does seem that there was movement between what happened in Bagram to then what happened at Abu Ghraib and also what happened at Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. And they do seem to have some similarities, no?
DANNER: There's no question about that.
DANNER: We have a full record of it. People should read what was done.
DANNER: I think what was done in these reports as described was worse because high officials signed off on it.
COOPER: We've got to go. But Mark Danner has written extensively about this great article in The New York Review, books, you should read. David Gergen, thank you as well.
This was not your normal CNN news program segment during which two guests spout differing opinions and the host plays the "fair and balanced" referee.
Cooper's approach in this circumstance, his effort to ferret out the facts from his guests and put those facts in context -- however absurd it is that this should be unique -- is unique for a CNN program, just as it still is for far too much of broadcast and cable network news shows.
On the other hand, Gergen's repeated defense of CIA agents who tortured -- they were just following the "rules," or orders -- is fairly shocking for such a student of history.
When Gergen witnessed historically racist code words being used against Obama during the 2008 campaign season, he was unequivocal in his denouncement of such age-old divisive and demeaning tactics.
But now that CIA torturers are hiding behind an historically indefensible justification for committing acts of cruelty and inhumane treatment, Gergen, along with many apologists in the media, has turned his back on history.
Nothing could put the future of the United States in more jeopardy.
UPDATE: A new Associated Press report directly dispels Gergen's assertion that "there's a temptation here to sort of lump Abu Ghraib, which was clear violations of the rules by a lot of other people with these more limited CIA techniques."
From the AP report:
The brutal treatment of terror detainees and prisoners by members of the military followed directly from the CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques, according to a Senate report that is likely to add fuel to the debate over the United States' use of torture.
The report documents the Bush administration's growing reliance on harsh interrogations that began just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It also ties those unyielding interrogation policies to the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military authorities at the Abu Ghraib prison as well as to interrogations at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan.
UPDATE II: Peter Hart at FAIR has an excellent related catch he found in a recent New York Times article:
Today the New York Times is reporting that waterboarding was used far more often than we have been told--almost 300 times on two prisoners, including Abu Zubaydah. This stands in rather stark contrast to what we heard about the instant, positive effects of waterboarding--as the Times notes:
A former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, told ABC News and other news media organizations in 2007 that Abu Zubaydah had undergone waterboarding for only 35 seconds before agreeing to tell everything he knew.
Of course, someone who relented in "35 seconds" would not need to be waterboarded 83 times. And as [sic] been several accounts discussed, the information Zubaydah offered was of debatable value.
UPDATE III: Richard Blair finds this bottom line in the Senate Armed Services Committee report:
[T]he whole game was initially constructed to make the linkage between bin Laden and Saddam, because U.S. intelligence could not, in the aftermath of 9/11/01, make the connection. The development of Bush administration policies on torture had very little to do with actually preventing another attack on U.S. soil.
UPDATE IV: Battochio at Vagabond Scholar has an excellent roundup of videos on torture and the ongoing "torture debate."
UPDATE V: An absolute must-read by Glenn Greenwald today: Three Key Rules of Media Behavior Shape Their Discussions of "the 'Torture' Debate." I've been thinking a lot lately about what Greenwald discusses in this piece. Largely, the mainstream media has framed the "to prosecute or not to prosecute" those who committed war crimes in terms of "left" or "right" politics. Such frames have the best chance making the average American feel like this is just one more "political food fight," as NBC's Chuck Todd, Greenwald notes, called it the other day.
For those of us who make it our business, so to speak, to stay on top of this stuff every day, it's important to take a breath and realize that most people in this country do not. And it is not necessarily because they are bad citizens -- many simply don't have the time, the stomach or are overwhelmed by the endless permutations of such an unfolding story.
Karl Rove, the old direct mail advertiser, is a master at distraction, at shooting off flares right at the moment attention should be paid elsewhere. It is extremely disturbing that many in the mainstream media, eerily similar to the Bush years, continue to take their lead from Rove and some of the worst elements of the GOP, particularly when it comes to something as serious as the crime of torture.
It is crucial for independent journalists, bloggers, historians and all mainstream journalists who refuse to play in Rove's nether reality -- where this torture issue is either reduced to partisanship or defended for its "effectiveness" at extracting information -- to keep the focus on what is actually at stake here: of what happened and why, of how it is torture and why it is against U.S. and international law, and how history shows that the only hope to prevent or discourage such acts from happening in the future is to seek the painful truth, wherever that takes us, and hold those accountable, not just those who sanctioned cruel and inhumane acts but also those who agreed to follow orders.
Those Americans who don't keep track of this stuff daily may not be able to either wrap their heads around the distracting politics of this issue or penetrate that muck to understand what's truly at stake -- and it is Rove and company's aim to maintain that impenetrability, to keep that wall from tumbling down. But most Americans understand right and wrong; they understand torture when they hear the tactics that have been described in detail in recent days and they understand that those responsible were sitting in the highest offices in the land when they see the documents that confirm their signatures green-lighted this barbarism.
Plain and simple: It is up to those of us who do follow these issues daily to make sure that the politics surrounding the current "torture debate" is relegated to the sidelines and that the legal and human implications of torture remain at the forefront. Not an easy task when the predominance of mainstream coverage of any issue in this country has long been dominated by the sideshow of political wrangling instead of how an issue is actually affecting human beings.