Two separate bipartisan reports with surprising pronouncements, and a cable news debacle, highlight similar themes
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 18 April 2013 09.23 EDT
(updated below - Update II)
Today is a travel day for me, so I'll use this opportunity to note some brief though significant items:
(1) It's hardly news that the US instituted and for years maintained a systematic torture regime, but the success of the Obama administration in blocking all judicial proceedings has meant there has been no official decree that this is so. A comprehensive report just issued by a truly bipartisan group of former high-level Washington officials (including military officials) is as close as we are likely to get to such an official proclamation.
The Report explains that the impetus behind it was that "the Obama administration declined, as a matter of policy, to undertake or commission an official study of what happened, saying it was unproductive to 'look backwards' rather than forward." It concludes - in unblinking and definitive fashion - that "it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture"; this finding is "offered without reservation"; it is "not based on any impressionistic approach" but rather "grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture in many contexts, notably historical and legal"; and "the nation's highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture." It also debunks the popular claim that torture was confined to three cases of waterboarding, documenting that more than three people were subjected to that tactic and that the torture includes far more than just waterboarding.
This is not only a historical disgrace for the US and the responsible officials, but, as the New York Times article on this report inadvertently suggests, also shames two other institutions:
(1) the New York Times itself, which steadfastly refused touse the word "torture" to describe what was being done (unless it was done by other countries) and continues to justify that refusal through its then-Executive Editor Bill Keller (Andrew Sullivan ably demolishes Keller's reasoning, while the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote this week that this choice merits "some institutional soul-searching"); and,
The disgrace of the American torture regime falls on Bush officials and secondarily the media and political institutions that acquiesced to it, but the full-scale protection of those war crimes (and the denial of justice to their victims) falls squarely on the Obama administration.
Dan Froomkin has more on the significance of this report here. In sum, if you're the NYT or Obama, how do you reconcile your conduct with this establishment finding that it is "indisputable" that the US government, at its highest levels, instituted a worldwide regime of torture?
(2) One of the most commonly voiced objections to my Monday column about the Boston bombing was that, contrary to my claim, there were no real media attempts to suggest that the perpetrators were Muslim. That objection was voiced despite the multiple examples I cited where precisely that was done by the most mainstream news sources. It was voiced despite the grotesque media attempt to convert a Saudi victim of the bombing into "the suspect", as brilliantly analyzed by the New Yorker's Amy Davidson. And now we have yet another example: probably the worst of the bunch.
On Tuesday afternoon, CNN humiliated itself as badly as it ever has (which is saying quite a bit). The network's anchor John King, and its "terrorism expert", former Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend, both "reported" - as part of a "Breaking News" scoop that CNN loudly and excitedly trumpeted - that an arrest had been made in the Boston case and that the person was, as King put it, "a dark-skinned individual" (more or less simultaneously, Fox also reported the arrest). An hour later, it became clear that this was totally false. Raw Story details what happened here, and BuzzFeed (which one might at this point reasonably say is a level or so above CNN in the news reliability department) has the very amusing and appropriate mockery here.
But the best commentary on this debacle came from Chris Hayes' top-of-the-show seven-minute scathing monologue on MSNBC last night, where he not only crystallized why this was so journalistically reckless but, more importantly, explains exactly why CNN repeatedly said that the arrested person was "dark-skinned":
Townsend has built up quite a history at this point. It was she who visited Abu Ghraib in 2003 and put pressure on the prison officials there to extract more information. She then served as one of the paid shills for the then-designated terrorist group Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MeK), even as she used her perch at CNN to cheer for broad interpretations of the "material support for terrorism" statute that sent American Muslims to prison for decades for far less involvement with such groups than she had with the MeK. And now she's at the center of this reporting disaster. Good job, CNN: nobody could have guessed that a Bush terrorism official would produce outcomes like this.
(3) A different report from a bipartisan cast of official Washington was issued today, this one on the Obama administration's Iran policy. Although it affirms the DC convention that Iran is some sort of serious threat to the US - a prerequisite for being viewed as Serious among its target audience - it surprisingly, and quite cogently, calls into serious question the wisdom of the sanctions regime imposed by the US. As this good New York Times summary of the report notes, the report explains that sanctions have "contributed to an increase in repression and corruption within Iran" and "may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States".
The most important conclusion is that Obama must rely far less on bluster, threats and sanctions - none of which is likely to achieve anything - and instead do far more to engage the Iranians and find a negotiated settlement to the multiple issues between the two countries. That is the same conclusion publicly advocated by Obama's own former Iran adviser Vali Nasr, who has harshly criticized the president for failing to engage in real diplomacy with Tehran, as well as former national security officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett. That these same warnings now issue from such an establishment group as the one that produced this report is a compelling sign of just how misguided Obama policy has been. That does not, of course, mean, that he can or will change it. That's because, as Foreign Policy Community maven Les Gelb recently explained in the Daily Beast, what drives Iran policy more than anything else is this:
"Administration officials would never admit it, but the main reason for their being tougher on Iran than North Korea seems tied to American domestic politics as much as or more than anything else, specifically the standing of Israel and oil versus Korea and Japan. On strictly foreign-policy and national-security grounds, Democratic and Republican officials surely regard Seoul and Tokyo as important as the Mideast, certainly now with the growing importance of Asia. In American politics, however, Israel and oil count for much, much more. It's notable that President Obama made his strongest pronouncements about employing force to stop Iranian nukes at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the very potent group of American-Jewish backers of Israel."
Still, the more light shined on the fact that US belligerence toward Iran helps only Israel and hurts the US, the better.
(4) Also related to Monday's column on the Boston bombing: the Associated Press apparently woke up this morning and realized that the term "terrorism" has no real, fixed, or consistently applied meaning. This has long been clear, but it's nice to see this truth recognized in such a mainstream outlet:
"In times of tension and uncertainty, words can become malleable vessels - for cultural fears, for political agendas, for ways to make sense of the momentous and the unknown. In 2013 America, the word 'terrorism' exists at this ambiguous crossroads. And the opinions you'll find about it - this week in particular - often transcend mere linguistics."
Precisely. But what's most amazing about it is that the term, though essentially impoverished of fixed meaning, is incomparably significant when it comes to legal, political and cultural assumptions. It's a word that means nothing, yet justifies everything those in power do.
(5) The issue of the composition of the Guardian's readership often is raised in the comment section here and elsewhere. Yesterday, the paper's editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, sat for an interview with Mathew Ingram and revealed, among other things, that 1/3 of the Guardian's readership is British, 1/3 is American, and 1/3 is from the rest of the world. He also discussed the Guardian's expansion into the US, the impressive increases in US readership it has seen, and the Guardian's journalistic and financial strategies. Those interested in such matters matters may find the interview worthwhile.
(6) I'll be speaking at a couple of events this week, including the annual dinner of CAIR in New York this Saturday, April 20, entitled "Upholding Our Constitution" (ticket and event information here), and at the University of Illinois College of Law on Monday, April 22, where I'll debate the topic of domestic drones with the Heritage Foundation's James Carafano (for information, contact the local ACLU, one of the event sponsor's, at firstname.lastname@example.org). I'll also be doing some media appearances, including on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show on Friday night at roughly 8:00 pm, presumably to discuss several of these issues, and on Bill Moyers' PBS show in the middle of next week.
Also, a bit later today, I intend to add one item here on the growing hunger strike at Guantanamo, complete with an extraordinary video from the truly great documentarian Laura Poitras.
The hunger strike at Guantánamo continues to grow, even by the Pentagon's own admission. The New York Times' Charlie Savage citestwo military officials as saying that "two detainees recently have tried to commit suicide by hanging themselves." Laura Poitras interviewed one former detainee, Lakhdar Boumediene, who engaged in hunger strikes while at the camp; watch this extraordinary two-minute video to see what happened to him:
Related to this, the Atlantic's Andrew Cohen interviewed another former detainee who was tortured at the camp, the Libyan national Omar Deghayes, to get his reaction to the new torture report I described in Item 1. His reactions are well worth hearing.
I noted above (via commenter David Mizner) the remarkable coincidence that today is the 25th anniversary of the date the US signed the Convention Against Torture (April 18, 1988). Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts commemorated the occasion with a truly perfect visual, particularly compelling in light of this week's new report decreeing it "indisputable" that the US government maintained a systematic torture regime:
That would make an excellent exhibit in the Obama presidential library, marking one of the most significant aspects of his legacy.