Major newspapers reported Rice's denial that U.S. allows torture but didn't note administration's narrow definition

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post reported Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement that the United States "does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances," without noting that the Bush administration's definition of torture is at odds with international standards.

The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post all reported Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's December 5 statement that the United States "does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances," without noting that the Bush administration's definition of torture has been criticized as overly narrow. In contrast, The New York Times reported on December 7 that the administration's circumscribed definition of torture is at odds with international standards. The New York Times noted that Rice's statement has been criticized as misleading given that under the administration's definition, U.S. interrogators are free to employ methods that fall outside of the narrow category of "torture" but that violate the United Nations' Convention Against Torture. All three broadcast news outlets challenged directly or featured sources who challenged Rice's misleading statement, noting that it rested on the administration's limited definition of torture.

In a December 5 statement made before departing for a trip to Europe to meet with foreign government officials about concerns over reports of secret prisons operated on that continent by the CIA, Rice responded to recent criticisms of the United States' treatment of detainees by saying "the United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances."

In December 6 articles, two major newspapers -- The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) -- printed Rice's statement but did not report that the administration's definition of torture has been criticized by human rights groups, government officials, and members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who authored an amendment defining torture that the White House has threatened to veto.

On December 6, Post staff writer Glenn Kessler reported, without clarification, Rice's statement, "The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees." Journal staff reporter David Crawford wrote, "In her departure statement, Ms. Rice said the U.S. doesn't use or condone torture 'under any circumstances' to extract information from terrorism suspects, saying the U.S. will use 'every lawful weapon' to defeat terrorist groups." In a separate editorial published on December 7, the Journal argued that "Ms. Rice's pledge that the U.S. isn't 'torturing' anyone on European soil, or anywhere else, ought to be all the reassurance Europeans need." A third paper -- the Los Angeles Times -- only noted a statement by former Irish President Mary Robinson to an Irish news outlet that the administration is "ambivalent about what constitutes torture."

In contrast, while a December 6 New York Times article simply reported Rice's assertion without noting its evasiveness, two separate stories the newspaper published December 7 addressed the criticism over Rice's statement and the administration's definition of torture. The first article, by reporter Joel Brinkley, noted that "the American definition of torture is in some cases at variance with international conventions, and the administration has maintained in recent years that American law does not apply to prisoners held abroad." The second article, by staff writer Richard Bernstein, detailed the response to Rice's December 5 statement by European government officials:

Others pointed out that the Bush administration's definition of torture did not include practices like water-boarding - in which prisoners are strapped to a board and made to believe they are about to be drowned -- that violate provisions of the international Convention Against Torture.

Andrew Mullin, a Labor member of Parliament, said he had found Ms. Rice's assertions "wholly incredible." He agreed with Mr. Tyrie that Ms. Rice's statement had been "carefully lawyered," adding: "It is a matter of record that people have been kidnapped and have been handed over to people who have tortured them. I think their experience has to be matched against the particular form of language the secretary of state is using."

In a November 9 story, The New York Times reported that a classified 2004 report issued by CIA inspector general John L. Helgerson concluded that 10 methods of interrogation, including water-boarding, did not constitute torture and were thus permissible but might nevertheless run afoul of the international Convention Against Torture, which prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of prisoners.

In addition to the Times report, December 5 news reports on ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC's Nightly News all noted Rice's December 5 statement was based on the administration's limited definition of torture.

The CBS Evening News quoted Human Rights Watch researcher John Sifton, who said, "The administration's definition of torture is extremely fleeting." Sifton also appeared on NBC's segment, saying that Rice's statement was "filled with distortions, inaccuracies, misstatements of law; it's really a disingenuous and somewhat patronizing response."

NBC's Nightly News segment also featured Jeffrey Smith, former CIA general counsel, who said, "This administration early on defined torture so narrowly that activity could be conducted that everybody else regarded as torture. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell also noted that the CIA is suspected of using the interrogation method known as water-boarding, a method that involves strapping an individual to a board and making them believe they are drowning.

ABC's World News Tonight also noted that "[i]ntelligence officers say the secretary can say that because of a presidential finding, which approved six enhanced interrogation techniques not defined by the U.S. as torture. Techniques, according to ABC News sources, which the men being held are regularly subjected to." Chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross previously reported on November 29 that McCain described water-boarding as "very exquisite torture" and said it should not be allowed. The report also noted that the U.S. declared water-boarding illegal during the Vietnam war.

Unlike The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal published reports following Rice's December 5 speech that included her statement without challenge, "The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture." In fact, as Media Matters for America has previously noted, news reports have documented the CIA practice of rendition, in which detainees are transported from countries in which they are captured to others with histories of severe prisoner abuse, such as Uzbekistan.

For example, the New York Times reported on May 1 that "there is growing evidence that the United States has sent terror suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation, even as Uzbekistan's treatment of its own prisoners continues to earn it admonishments from around the world, including from the State Department." During the March 7 edition of World News Tonight, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray said that the CIA knew the Uzbeks were torturing prisoners, including one case in which he received photos of a prisoner who was boiled alive.

The November 7 New York Times story by Richard Bernstein noted:

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more sudden and thorough tarnishing of the Bush administration's credibility than the one taking place here right now. There have been too many reports in the news media about renditions -- including one involving a Lebanese-born German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, kidnapped in Macedonia in December 2003 and imprisoned in Afghanistan for several months on the mistaken assumption that he was an associate of the Sept. 11 hijackers -- for blanket disclaimers of torture to be widely believed.

"I think what she means is, 'We don't use it as an official way to do things, but we don't look at what is done in other countries,' " Monika Griefahn, a Social Democratic member of Parliament, said in regard to Ms. Rice's comment on torture. "And that's the problem for us."

Media Matters previously noted that news outlets were reporting an admonishment of Uzbekistan by the State Department without noting the CIA's contradictory practice of rendering detainees there. The State Department report found that Uzbek police "repeatedly tortured prisoners" frequently "with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask."

From the December 7 New York Times article by Joel Brinkley:

As Europeans continue to investigate whether torture or detention of terrorism suspects took place on European soil, Ms. Rice assured Mrs. Merkel that "the United States does not condone torture."

"It is against U.S. law to be involved in torture or conspiracy to commit torture," Ms. Rice said. "And it is also against U.S. international obligations."

But the American definition of torture is in some cases at variance with international conventions, and the administration has maintained in recent years that American law does not apply to prisoners held abroad.

In defending the practice of rendition, American officials have said that they obtain assurances from the third countries that prisoners will not be tortured, but that the United States is limited in its ability to enforce the promises.

From the December 7 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein:

In Britain, members of Parliament from both parties reacted with even greater skepticism to Ms. Rice's statement, saying it had neither answered their questions nor allayed their concerns about American policy.

"It's clear that the text of the speech was drafted by lawyers with the intention of misleading an audience," Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative member of Parliament, said in an interview. Mr. Tyrie is chairman of a recently formed nonpartisan committee that plans to investigate claims that the British government has tacitly condoned torture by allowing the United States to use its airspace to transport terrorist suspects to countries where they are subsequently tortured.

Parsing through the speech, Mr. Tyrie pointed out example after example where, he said, Ms. Rice was using surgically precise language to obfuscate and distract. By asserting, for instance, that the United States does not send suspects to countries where they "will be" tortured, Ms. Rice is protecting herself, Mr. Tyrie said, leaving open the possibility that they "may be" tortured in those countries.

Others pointed out that the Bush administration's definition of torture did not include practices like water-boarding -- in which prisoners are strapped to a board and made to believe they are about to be drowned -- that violate provisions of the international Convention Against Torture.

Andrew Mullin, a Labor member of Parliament, said he had found Ms. Rice's assertions "wholly incredible." He agreed with Mr. Tyrie that Ms. Rice's statement had been "carefully lawyered," adding: "It is a matter of record that people have been kidnapped and have been handed over to people who have tortured them. I think their experience has to be matched against the particular form of language the secretary of state is using."

From the December 6 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

A spokesman for the German government said that, in preparatory talks about Ms. Rice's visit, the U.S. assured Germany that she will respond to questions raised about the U.S. policy and practice, and provide additional details about U.S. government flights.

In her departure statement, Ms. Rice said the U.S. doesn't use or condone torture "under any circumstances" to extract information from terrorism suspects, saying the U.S. will use "every lawful weapon" to defeat terrorist groups. She declined to respond to questions about whether the U.S. is holding terrorism suspects in secret in Europe, itself a controversial issue for European officials aside from the torture question. Instead, Ms. Rice focused on lives she said have been saved in Europe and the U.S. as a result of an interrogation program that has uncovered information about planned terrorist attacks.

From the December 7 Wall Street Journal editorial:

Ms. Rice's pledge that the U.S. isn't "torturing" anyone on European soil, or anywhere else, ought to be all the reassurance Europeans need.

[...]

And the most aggressive interrogation technique authorized against such men is "waterboarding," which induces a feeling of suffocation. That's rough treatment, but the technique has also been used on U.S. servicemen to train them to resist interrogations, and we suspect many Europeans would accept it if they believed it might avert another Madrid.

From the December 6 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Rice embarked on a trip to Europe amid a monthlong furor over alleged secret CIA prisons there and widening suspicions by European leaders and citizens alike that U.S. agencies have adopted brutal tactics in dealing with terrorism suspects.

But in response to a call for clarification from European leaders, Rice was unyielding Monday. She declared that the United States does not torture prisoners or hand them over to governments that do, but she refused to confirm or deny that the U.S. government maintains secret prisons around the world -- called "black sites" by critics -- to detain terrorism suspects, a chief concern of many of the Europeans.

[...]

But former Irish President Mary Robinson told Irish broadcaster RTE that the Bush administration remains "ambivalent about what constitutes torture" and has not disclosed whether it is shipping suspects through Ireland.

From the December 6 edition of The Washington Post:

Rice also asserted that the United States does not transport terrorism suspects "for the purpose of interrogation using torture" and "will not transport anyone to a country when we believe he will be tortured." She added that "where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."

"The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees," she said.

The United States is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in which nations pledge to refuse to torture and pledge to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. The Bush administration, however, has argued that the obligations concerning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment do not apply outside U.S. territory.

The Post article reported that CIA interrogators in the overseas sites have been permitted to use interrogation techniques prohibited by the U.N. convention or by U.S. military law. Asked about this apparent contradiction, Rice told reporters: "Our people, wherever they are, are operating under U.S. law and U.S. obligations."

Any violation of U.S. detention standards is investigated and punished, Rice said in her statement, citing the prison abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib "that sickened us all.

From the December 5 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

MITCHELL: Human Rights groups have said the prisons were in Poland and Romania.

SIFTON: Secretary Rice's response is filled with distortions, inaccuracies, misstatements of law; it's really a disingenuous and somewhat patronizing response.

MITCHELL: Rice also denied that the U.S. tortures prisoners, but Europeans are convinced the CIA is using interrogation techniques at these black site prisons like water-boarding and sleep deprivation.

SMITH: This administration early on defined torture so narrowly that activity could be conducted that everybody else regarded as torture.

From the December 5 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

ROSS: Before leaving for Europe, Secretary of State Rice today also reaffirmed the U.S. does not use torture.

RICE: The United States does not transport, and has not transported detainees from one country to another, for the purpose of interrogation using torture.

ROSS: Intelligence officers say the secretary can say that because of a presidential finding, which approved six enhanced interrogation techniques not defined by the U.S. as torture. Techniques, according to ABC News sources, which the men being held are regularly subjected to.

From the December 5 broadcast of the CBS Evening News:

MARK PHILLIPS (correspondent): As denials go, this one seemed pretty blanket.

RICE: The United States does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances.

PHILLIPS: The U.S. has been accused by human rights groups of transporting detainees to secret prison camps including one in a remote Soviet-era air base in Romania.

[...]

PHILLIPS: Secretary Rice's torture denial has not satisfied the critics.

SIFTON: The administration's definition of torture is extremely fleeting.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Detention, Interrogation
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