WSJ editorial misrepresented Abu Ghraib abuses, ABC News report

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

A Wall Street Journal editorial said that "numerous" investigations into the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal concluded that the abuses "had nothing to do with interrogations." In fact, the opposite is true. The editorial also falsely claimed that a series of Bush administration memos that sought to loosen constraints on interrogators "sanctioned no specific interrogation techniques" and misrepresented an ABC News report on interrogation methods.

Opposing passage of Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) amendment prohibiting the use of torture during interrogations, a December 13 Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that "numerous" probes into the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq concluded that the alleged abuses there "had nothing to do with interrogations." In fact, Senate and military probes concluded the opposite. The editorial also claimed that the so-called "torture memos," a series of memoranda written by Bush administration lawyers and officials that narrowed the definition of torture and sought to loosen constraints on interrogators, never sanctioned "specific interrogation techniques"; however at least one memo, which went out under the letterhead of the Secretary of Defense, sanctioned the use of 24 interrogation techniques, including sleep and dietary "adjustments," as well as a technique called "Fear Up Harsh," which involved "[s]ignificantly increasing the fear level in a detainee."

Additionally, the editorial stated that ABC News reported that 11 out of 12 high-level Al Qaeda detainees had talked after being subjected to the "waterboarding" technique. ABC made no such assertion in its broadcast.* A segment on the December 5 edition of ABC's World News Tonight -- to which the editorial was apparently referring reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the claim that the use of six interrogation methods sanctioned by a presidential finding -- including waterboarding -- had extracted information from detainees. The same segment reported that 11 high-level Al Qaeda detainees had been moved from prisons in Eastern Europe to Northern Africa, not that "11 of 12" had provided information. The ABC report did not connect Rice's statement to those specific detainees, and the network offered no indication that it had done any independent reporting to verify or refute her claim.

The Journal also argued that if the McCain amendment passes, rendition -- the practice of transferring suspected terrorists in U.S. custody to other countries, including nations known for torturing prisoners -- would increase, and that the practice was "favored" by the Clinton administration. However, as Media Matters for America has previously noted, Clinton-era renditions usually involved the transportation of criminals to the U.S. or other nations so they could be tried, and all renditions were subject to White House review; after 9-11, President Bush authorized broader use of renditions strictly for the purposes of interrogation and exempted renditions from Clinton-era restrictions against prisoner abuse.

The Journal editorial claimed that "numerous probes have proved [Abu Ghraib] had nothing to do with interrogations," so the alleged abuses at the prison should not be used as grounds to support McCain's amendment. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported in an August 26, 2004, article, a Pentagon report found that many of the 44 separate cases of alleged abuse that the Pentagon investigated occurred during interrogations conducted at the prison, and that the death of at least one prisoner resulted from harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA:

Among the cases for which new information is provided is that of the death of a prisoner who was being interrogated by a CIA officer in November 2003. The prisoner, who had been hit on the head with a gun by a Navy SEAL for resisting arrest, was placed in a shower room during interrogations and found dead hours later, according to the report.

In one case, the generals found, two intelligence soldiers "beat and kicked a passive, cuffed detainee" suspected of a role in a mortar attack on the prison by insurgents that wounded [Lt. Col. Steven L.] Jordan and killed two soldiers.

When a military policeman intervened and tried to stop the abuse, he was told by the intelligence soldiers that "we are the professionals; we know what we are doing," according to the report.

As it turned out, the prisoner probably was not involved in the attack and was released later that day.

And as The Washington Post reported on April 23, the investigation by Maj. Gen. George R. Fay into Abu Ghraib abuses concluded that senior officers at the site "failed to ensure proper staff oversight of detention and interrogation operations."

The Journal also claimed that a second concern raised by proponents of the amendment -- the so-called torture memos, a series of administration documents which tracked the evolution of the interrogation policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, "sanctioned no specific interrogation techniques." However, as The New York Times observed in a detailed examination of the memos, "A memorandum from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to Gen. James T. Hill outlined 24 permitted interrogation techniques, 4 of which were considered stressful enough to require Mr. Rumsfeld's explicit approval."

The Journal editorial claimed that ABC News reported that "11 of 12 captured al Qaeda kingpins who have talked only did so after being waterboarded," and that "[t]his would appear to contradict so many glib suggestions ... that such techniques 'just plain don't work.' The truth is that sometimes they do work." But ABC did not broadcast such a report. In a December 5 segment on ABC's World News Tonight, correspondent Brian Ross reported that Rice "said today that the intelligence gathered from those techniques has stopped planned terror attacks and saved lives." The report did not independently verify Rice's statement, nor did it provide any indication that Rice had offered specific examples to support her claim. In addition, the report did not indicate that Rice was referring to 11 high-level Al Qaeda detainees who had been moved from prisons in Eastern Europe to Northern Africa under the CIA's rendition program. ABC News did report on November 18 that sources at the CIA said that waterboarding had successfully extracted information from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and other detainees at a secret prison in Kabul, with "debatable results." That report, however, did not indicate the number of detainees who had talked after being subjected to the method.

Finally, the Journal editorial warned that the controversial CIA process of rendition would increase if McCain's amendment passes, and that the program was "favored by the Clinton administration because it lacked the nerve to handle captured terrorists outside the criminal justice system." Media Matters has previously noted instances in which media figures implied no difference between renditions under Clinton and those used in the post-9-11 war on terror. As the Times reported on March 6, the CIA "had been authorized by presidential directives to carry out renditions, but under much more restrictive rules" under Clinton; in most cases, they were used to transport criminals to the United States or other countries to stand trial. But following 9-11, Bush sanctioned a "broad new latitude," and the agency was "authorized to transfer prisoners to other countries solely for the purpose of detention and interrogation;" the stringent White House review on all renditions under Clinton was waived.

The New Yorker also reported in a separate article published in February that the rendition program "expanded beyond recognition" under Bush, "becoming, according to a former C.I.A. official, 'an abomination.' " The article continued: "What began as a program aimed at a small, discrete set of suspects -- people against whom there were outstanding foreign arrest warrants -- came to include a wide and ill-defined population that the Administration terms 'illegal enemy combatants.' "

From the December 13 Wall Street Journal editorial headlined "Torturous Progress":

It's coming late in the game, but a little honesty has finally crept into the debate over interrogation in the war on terror. To wit, the critics are at last having to explain what they really object to, as opposed to their typically vague and inaccurate accusations of "torture."

[...]

Mr. Cheney's stand is smoking out the critics, who for months have hid behind incantations first about Abu Ghraib, which numerous probes have proved had nothing to do with interrogations, and then the so-called "torture memos," which sanctioned no specific interrogation techniques. So congratulations of a sort to the Washington Post, perhaps the most vociferous promoter of the "torture narrative," for finally admitting in a Sunday editorial what so offends its editors.

[...]

And don't forget "rendition" -- the turning over of captured terrorists -- to the likes of Egypt or Syria, the practice favored by the Clinton Administration because it lacked the nerve to handle captured terrorists outside the criminal justice system. We trust the CIA more than Egyptian intelligence, but where are the "torture" critics on the morality of this practice? The truth is that if the McCain Amendment passes, rendition will almost certainly increase. Perhaps this will be the next liberal target, until every al Qaeda detainee is treated no differently than a common thief.

* Correction: The original version of this item stated that ABC News did not report that 11 of 12 Al Qaeda detainees required waterboarding before talking. In fact, the last paragraph of a December 5 Web-only ABC News article stated: "Of the 12 high-value targets housed by the CIA, only one did not require water boarding before he talked." The article provided no sourcing for the assertion.

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