< The Wrong Debate?


Friday, August 28, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The CIA Inspector General’s Report issued Monday was long awaited and predictably explosive. Despite claims to the contrary by former Vice President Dick Cheney, the CIA’s own analysis demonstrated no clear link between the torture of terrorism suspects and valuable intelligence. This was page one news everywhere, and widely reported as a repudiation of the Bush administration’s rationale for so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But we wondered if the coverage didn't, in a backhand way, validate a spurious justification for torture. Greg Miller covers intelligence for The L.A. Times, and he joins me now. Greg, welcome to OTM.

GREG MILLER: Thanks very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Your story on Wednesday said there was quote, “little or no evidence” to support Dick Cheney’s claim that interrogators extracted key information using waterboarding and other torture tactics. That was the gist of the piece, correct?

GREG MILLER: Yeah, it was essentially that there was a good deal of intelligence that came from CIA prisoners but that there is very little in these documents to suggest that specific methods were crucial or even necessary for getting that information.

BOB GARFIELD: My follow-up is, so what? Let's just say that the CIA report had concluded that torture had, in fact, extracted key intelligence, that Dick Cheney was correct in asserting that torture works. Then what? Where does that take us?

GREG MILLER: You’re not going to get me to argue that waterboarding is legal or that there are situations in which waterboarding ought to be okay, or that it’s not torture. But there’s a continuum of methods here, ranging from the deprivation of sleep up to waterboarding, and I think it would be foolish to think that this is an issue that is not going to resurface for some future administration. I've been told that in a conversation with senior officials at the White House, CIA Director Mike Hayden, who was replaced when Obama was elected, on his way out of office put the question this way: Are you guys sure about this? Are you sure that there are no circumstances in which you are going to be willing to disrupt the sleep cycle of a detainee that you think has relevant and critical threat information? History has shown us that, that brutal interrogation tactics have popped up time and again, in times of war and in times of national crisis, and so trying to evaluate what works and what doesn't is part of what might be necessary to inform that debate the next time it comes around.

BOB GARFIELD: I grant you that there is a continuum of techniques, and I also further grant you that there may be a continuum of circumstance. And, you know, I'm going to also further [LAUGHS] grant you, Greg, that I probably shouldn't be picking on you particularly because certainly this week the preponderance of your reporting has concerned the brutality of the interrogations. But over the past number of months, at least four times, you have taken up the subject of efficacy. And I have to, therefore, ask you, isn't any reporting on the intelligence pros and cons of torture changing the subject in exactly the way that Dick Cheney wants it changed, from the morality and legality of torture to the efficacy of torture? Aren't you kind of being suckered by your very reporting validating the premise that effectiveness constitutes justification?

GREG MILLER: I sure hope not. Dick Cheney has commanded a great deal of attention on these issues, and I think part of our role in the press is to evaluate the assertions of public officials who have an ability to influence the public. And so, some of these stories that I've written have challenged these assertions Cheney has made. He said a month or two ago that the interrogations of these prisoners saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and that just seemed to be an astonishing assertion, and it seemed to warrant some scrutiny. And while Cheney is obviously a really important figure in the debate on this issue, there are other elements of it. The Senate Intelligence Committee is in the midst of a major study of this question. They're gathering millions of pages of documents from the CIA to look at whether these tactics were necessary, whether they worked. And this is being driven by a senator, Diane Feinstein, who is adamantly opposed to using anything beyond the sort of basic interrogation approaches. This is a debate that is happening [LAUGHS] with or without my participation. I don't regard myself as a participant in this debate. My job is to challenge the assertions of public officials like Dick Cheney and uncover facts that are important for the public to know.

BOB GARFIELD: You just said something interesting, that you don't want to be part of the discussion, you just want to report on it. I'm paraphrasing. But if a phony controversy falls in the forest and no news organization decides to pay attention, does it exist? Is it never right for a news organization to say they're hanging their hat on a logical irrelevancy and, therefore, we don't really need to pay attention?

GREG MILLER: I guess I don't see this issue falling into that category. Finding myself trying to think of an – think of a case in which the nature of a subject requires us not to cover it - I mean, I – I mean, I guess there have clearly been cases in history where the press has been co-opted, you know, by McCarthyism. [LAUGHS] Ultimately the press in, I think, many cases, ends up being a tool to challenge those sorts of abuses of power, but because of the importance of this issue, I think that it’s hard to argue that writing about the different facets of this, and, as we've talked about, there is the debate over whether it’s right and wrong and there is the debate over whether it works or not – I don't think giving the public more information on this issue is a bad thing to do.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, now you've caught me in kind of a funny situation because I guess I seem even to myself to be suggesting that the press conspire to suppress a debate, if it does consider it irrelevant. But is there no way to frame the debate to make clearer the notion that the Bush administration’s justification for torture is still illegal, effective or not?

GREG MILLER: We've given a good deal of attention [LAUGHS] to that point. In a story that I wrote this week, in fact, I said that President Obama has said that the use of these methods is not only illegal but made the country less safe because of how much ill will it generates towards Americans to be seen employing brutal tactics like this. I'm always trying to frame this in this context, that this is a difficult issue and that this is something that many people regard as immoral, and that this isn't merely a debate over whether they worked or not.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Greg, thank you very much.

GREG MILLER: Okay, thanks.

BOB GARFIELD: Greg Miller is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times and coauthor of The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda.

[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Is it ethical for reporters to misrepresent themselves to get a story? What if they unearth injustice or corruption on a massive scale? In a piece we originally aired last fall, Brooke reported on the ethics of the much-acclaimed and much-criticized practice of undercover reporting.