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Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Cheney's 'Fodder'

Cheney's torture claims debunked; will the media say so?

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

The release of a 2004 CIA inspector general's report on the agency's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, along with two other previously classified memos, has thrown a harsh spotlight on former Vice President Dick Cheney's oft-repeated pro-torture arguments. But corporate media seem intent on deflecting much of that glare.

Earlier this year, Cheney spent weeks on the airwaves, explaining that these CIA memos would back up his argument that torture provided valuable intelligence that helped thwart attacks against the United States (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/29/09). But the heavily redacted documents don't appear to do that. Of the two that Cheney asserted would help his case, reporter Spencer Ackerman noted (Washington Independent, 8/24/09) they "actually suggest the opposite of Cheney's contention: that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA's interrogations."

Some reporters managed to reach the opposite conclusion, though how they did so was unclear. On the CBS Evening News (8/25/09), reporter Bob Orr said: "The once-secret documents do support the claims of former Vice President Dick Cheney that harsh interrogations at times did work. Interviews with prisoners helped the U.S. capture other terror suspects and thwart potential attacks, including Al-Qaeda plots to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi and fly an airplane into California's tallest building." The problem is, whatever one makes of the CIA's argument that their interrogations yielded valuable intelligence, there's nothing in the documents newly available to the public--and to CBS--that actually argues this intelligence was produced by the torture techniques like waterboarding that Cheney so publicly defended.

As Ackerman told CounterSpin (8/28/09): Cheney and his supporters' argument "depends a lot on conflating the difference between saying the documents show that valuable [intelligence] came from detainees in the program, and then saying that it came from the enhanced interrogation techniques themselves.... That's a conflation that has served the former vice president's purposes."

Many other accounts treated the release of these documents as another chance to play "he said/she said." An August 26 Los Angeles Times headline read, "CIA Interrogation Memos Provide Fodder for Both Sides." What sort of "fodder" they gave to Cheney's side wasn't evident in the story itself, which pointed out that the CIA documents "are at best inconclusive--attesting that captured terrorism suspects provided crucial intelligence on Al-Qaeda and its plans, but offering little to support the argument that harsh or abusive methods played a key role."

ABC reporter Brian Ross (8/25/09) managed to convey the lack of evidence for Cheney in the documents, but inexplicably still left things up in the air: "Nowhere in the reports, however, does the CIA ever draw a direct connection between the valuable information and the specific use of the harsh tactics. So, Charlie, there's just enough for both sides to argue about, while CIA officers in the field are left to figure out just what is expected of them."

NBC's Andrea Mitchell (8/25/09) sounded a similar note, explaining that "administration officials say there is no way to know whether the same information could have been obtained...without waterboarding" and airing a quote from an Amnesty International spokesperson pointing out that Al-Qaeda detainee Khalid Sheik Mohammed told the Red Cross that he lied "to mislead his interrogators and make them stop"--but then concluding: "An argument experts say that may never be resolved."

As FAIR noted in May, media's willingness to give Cheney a platform in the debate over torture shifted the discussion away from the central issue that torture is illegal under both U.S. and international law, and focused attention instead on torture's efficacy. The media allowed Cheney to push the discussion in this direction, in large part because Cheney assured that these secret documents would show that he was right. Now that it's clear they do not, will the media outlets that gave Cheney a platform continue to let him off the hook?

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