In an editorial on December 2 titled "Red Double-Crossed Again," The Wall Street Journal grossly distorted the content of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Later that day on FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld admitted he had "not had a chance to read" the ICRC report, but he apparently relied on the Journal as he echoed the editorial's distortions in an interview with host Bill O'Reilly.
A November 30 New York Times article first revealed the content of a confidential ICRC report, given to the Bush administration in July, that was critical of the treatment of so-called "unlawful enemy combatants" held at Guantánamo. While the Journal editorial did not mention the Times article directly, the Times was the first to report on the ICRC's July memo, and the editorial adopted some language from the Times article, distorting its meaning in the process.
The Journal editorial claimed without support that since the portions of the report were apparently leaked to the news media, the ICRC has "has thrown confidentiality aside," violating its longstanding tradition of "strict confidentiality agreements with cooperating governments." In fact, the Times did not disclose how it obtained the information; the article noted only that the ICRC report was "distributed to lawyers at the White House, Pentagon and State Department and to the commander of the detention facility at Guantánamo," any of whom could have been the source of the leak. The Journal insisted that "it matters little that the original leaker in this case might have been in the U.S. government," falsely claiming that "[o]fficials at ICRC headquarters were only too happy to confirm the document's authenticity." In fact, the ICRC merely released a statement asserting that "problems regarding conditions and treatment at Guantánamo Bay have not yet been adequately addressed." Rather than serving as "confirm[ation of] the document's authenticity," the statement could well have been a response to the Bush administration's repeatedly invoking ICRC visits to Guantánamo as proof that abuses have not occurred there.
From the November 30 New York Times article:
Antonella Notari, a veteran Red Cross official and spokeswoman, said that the organization frequently complained to the Pentagon and other arms of the American government when government officials cite the Red Cross visits to suggest that there is no abuse at Guantánamo. Most statements from the Pentagon in response to queries about mistreatment at Guantánamo do, in fact, include mention of the visits.
The Journal editorial also misrepresented the ICRC's specific criticisms of U.S. conduct at Guantánamo in order to make the group's positions appear ludicrous. "[T]he ICRC is alleging that the psychological conditions faced by Guantánamo detainees are 'tantamount to torture.' Why? Because -- we kid you not -- prisoners are being held for indefinite periods and the uncertainty is stressful," the editorial stated.
According to the Times, the ICRC report claimed that "the American military has intentionally used psychological and sometimes physical coercion 'tantamount to torture' on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba." Though the Times does indicate that the ICRC was also concerned about the effect of indefinite detention on the prisoners' mental health, it was the psychological and physical coercion, and not the indefinite detention, that the ICRC reportedly deemed "tantamount to torture."
The Journal editorial also falsely claimed that the ICRC is "demanding POW status for un-uniformed combatants who target civilians." In fact, the ICRC made clear in a 2003 report titled "The legal situation of 'unlawful/unprivileged combatants'" that the group acknowledges a distinction between POWs and unlawful combatants and does not demand POW status for detainees captured in Afghanistan. Rather, the ICRC asserts that while these detainees may not be POWs as defined by the Third Geneva Convention ("Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War"), they still deserve more limited protections under the Fourth Geneva Convention ("Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War") and the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.
The Journal editorial went even further in its misrepresentation of the ICRC's position on the legal rights of prisoners at Guantánamo, falsely claiming that the ICRC wants to grant them "even more privileges than legitimate POWs." The Journal claimed that since the Geneva Conventions allow POWs to "be held for the duration of the conflict so that they do not return to the battlefield," the ICRC's concern about the mental health effects of indefinite detention amounts to a demand for that detainees be released before the end of the war against Al Qaeda. In fact, the Times article indicates no such assertion by the ICRC.
Rumsfeld echoed the Journal's false interpretation of the ICRC report during his interview on The O'Reilly Factor, and O'Reilly agreed. Even though Rumsfeld's position would allow him access to the confidential ICRC report, he offered this false interpretation just after admitting that he hadn't read the ICRC report, suggesting that it came from the Journal.
From the December 2 edition of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor:
O'REILLY: What do you think of the International Red Cross condemning the way the U.S.A. is treating prisoners in Guantánamo Bay?
RUMSFELD: I have not had a chance to read the late missive from them.
O'REILLY: They basically say we're torturing them. That's what they say.
RUMSFELD: Right. They say basically that holding people for the long-term without indicating to them is tantamount to mental torture.
RUMSFELD: [T]hey've decided on their own that it is ... "tantamount to torture" to keep somebody without telling them how long they're going to stay in jail.