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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Waterboarding Works"

There's a trick in journalism known as "burying the lead." In this, a journalist, editor, producer, or whatever doesn't like what the story's clearly about, but finds the story impossible to ignore -- they have to report it. Which doesn't mean you can't spin it or sensationalize it. You can produce an absolutely factual piece, but you can change what the story's about.

Take the story of retired CIA officer John Kiriakou. Kiriakou spoke to ABC's Brian Ross about the capture and interrogation of terrorist suspect Abu Zabaydah. He told Ross that Zabaydah was waterboarded by the CIA. The suspect then caved. According to Kiriakou, Zabaydah "was able to withstand the waterboarding for quite some time -- and by that I mean probably 30, 35 seconds." Zabaydah later told interrogators that "Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured.

"And from that day on, he answered every question..." Kiriakou told Ross.

The story is that the CIA used waterboarding -- newsworthy because the CIA has destroyed tapes of interrogations. Many observers believe that destroying the tapes amounts to the destruction of evidence and the CIA was concerned that agents involved in waterboarding could be prosecuted. The 9/11 commission had requested such tapes and were told they didn't exist.

But back to burying the lead. Most of the headlines about this story are "Waterboarding Works." Take this, from the right wing CNS News Service, titled "Some Senators Wary of Waterboarding, Even to Save Lives."

With a vote pending to restrict the interrogation techniques of the Central Intelligence Agency, many senators were non-committal Tuesday on whether they would agree to outlaw waterboarding after a former CIA officer said the method of simulated drowning helped save American lives.

Former CIA agent John Kiriakou told ABC News and The Washington Post that the waterboarding of terrorist Abu Zubayda "probably saved lives," although Kiriakou did not participate in the waterboarding and does not support its use.

I should explain that it's called "the lead" because it's what you open the story with. Most news stories are written in what's called an "hourglass" structure that can be summed up like this:

1. Here's what the story's about.
2. Here are the details.
3. And that's what the story was about.

It works because it's actually a logical argument we're very familiar with. "This is my argument, this is the evidence supporting my argument, and that's why I came to the conclusions presented in my argument" -- or, more simply, "It's two, because it's one and one and that's two." The hourglass works because it's how we teach and learn.

So CNS took a story verifying waterboarding by the CIA and made into "Waterboarding works, but some Senators still oppose it -- here's a few. And that's why some Senators oppose waterboarding, even though it works." In that entire story, Kiriakou was quoted in a total of three words; "probably saved lives." Reading this, you have no idea what else he said, other than he's against it.

Yet, in the first story I quoted, Kiriakou went on in a lot more detail.

Asked if he believed waterboarding was torture, Kiriakou said that he didn't [think] so at the time, but his opinion on the subject had shifted. "I think I've changed my mind," he said. "And I think that waterboarding is probably something that we shouldn't be in the business of doing."

Added Kiriakou, "We're Americans and we're better than this. And we shouldn't be doing this kind of thing. But at the same time, what happens if we don't waterboard a person and we don't get that nugget of information. I would have trouble forgiving myself."

Given that Kiriakou probably came out because of the CIA tape scandal and given that the Geneva Conventions clearly bar torture, what he's saying is that the CIA participated in a war crime and covered it up. That's the lead.

Yet, what most of the media is doing with their "Waterboarding Works" stories is giving the right wing an entirely different story to tell. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough is now asking, "When did the liberal media decide ... that waterboarding was torture?" and saying the CIA was right to destroy the tapes. The US military banned waterboarding.

The CIA said it had in back in September. Now I wonder.

Either way, we're now going to hear about how "waterboarding works" from right wingers for a long, long time. The media has made it easy for them.

Meanwhile, let's look at a damned good reason why we shouldn't torture. Think Progress has a post showing Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asking Brigadier General Thomas W. Hartmann whether Iranian intelligence waterboarding a captured US airman would violate Geneva. Hartmann refused to answer.

GRAHAM: You mean you're not equipped to give a legal opinion as to whether or not Iranian military waterboarding, secret security agents waterboarding downed airmen is a violation of the Geneva Convention?

HARTMANN: I am not prepared to answer that question, Senator.

If we can do it, they can do it. And, as Hartmann demonstrates, we can't complain about it. By practicing torture, we put our own troops in greater danger of torture.

And that's what my post about waterboarding and burying the lead was all about.


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