Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 9:52 pm

Another swing-and-a-miss in New York … and I ain’t talking baseball.

On Saturday, The New York Times published this story:

WASHINGTON — When Justice Department lawyers engaged in a sharp internal debate in 2005 over brutal interrogation techniques, even some who believed that using tough tactics was a serious mistake agreed on a basic point: the methods themselves were legal.

Previously undisclosed Justice Department e-mail messages, interviews and newly declassified documents show that some of the lawyers, including James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general who argued repeatedly that the United States would regret using harsh methods, went along with a 2005 legal opinion asserting that the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency were lawful.

Only here’s the thing: The Times based its story in significant part on memos from Comey that actually show the opposite with respect to combining various forms of, as the phrase goes, enhanced interrogation techniques. Go on and read ’em yourself; it won’t take long.

What they actually show, among other things, is that both Comey and another Justice official, Pat Philbin, were raising serious concerns about the analysis that led to the conclusion that torture was legal; that Vice President Dick Cheney was putting pressure on Justice to provide legal cover — and to do it quickly; that Comey personally told then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez that the combined-effects memo “would come back to haunt him and the Department.” (Gonzalez even agreed with Comey that that memo was unacceptable as written.)

Comey also writes:

[Ted Ullyot, then chief of staff to Gonzalez] asked if I felt like I had had the chance to adequately air my views with the AG. I told him I had, so much so that the AG had agreed with me, which left me puzzled about the need to send the opinion now.

I told him that the people who were applying pressure now would not be there when the [   ] hit the fan. Rather, they would simply say that they had only asked for an opinion. It would be Alberto Gonzalez in the bullseye. I told him that my job was to protect the Departmwnt [sic] and the AG and that I could not agree to this because it was wrong.

Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald provides more detailed analysis of how the memos undermine the Times’ thesis rather than supporting it.

So does Marcy Wheeler, a former federal prosecutor, at Firedoglake. One thing she finds in the memos that the Times somehow did not is that ” … the May 10, 2005 authorization to use combined techniques was designed to give legal cover for something that had already happened.” She also provides additional analysis, particularly in this post, although even someone not overly familiar with either Washington politics or the law can look at the plain meaning of the memos and understand that the Times article does not accurately represent their contents.

In particular, she points out that although the Times says Comey said individual torture techniques were “legal,” Comey in fact makes clear that he believes only that they do not violate one particular U.S. statute (which was all he actually was asked about). He specifically emphasizes that he is not considering whether they might violate the Geneva Conventions or the UN Convention Against Torture.

Here’s Greenwald’s summary:

It’s worth noting that all of the officials involved in these events — including Comey — are right-wing ideologues appointed by George Bush.  That’s why they were appointed.  The fact that Comey was willing to go along with approval of these tactics when used individually — just as is true of his willingness to endorse a modified version of Bush’s NSA warrantless eavesdropping program in the face of FISA — hardly proves that there was a good-faith basis for the view that these individual tactics were legal.

But the real story here is obvious — these DOJ memos authorizing torture were anything but the by-product of independent, good faith legal analysis.  Instead, those memos — just like the pre-war CIA reports about The Threat of Saddam — were coerced by White House officials eager for bureaucratic cover for what they had already ordered.  This was done precisely so that once this all became public, they could point to those memos and have the political and media establishment excuse what they did (“Oh, they only did what they DOJ told them was legal”‘/”Oh, they were only reacting to CIA warnings about Saddam’s weapons”).  These DOJ memos, like the CIA reports, were all engineered by the White House to give cover to what they wanted to do; they were not the precipitating events that led to and justified those decisions.  That is the critical point proven by the Comey emails, and it is completely obscured by the NYT article, which instead trumpets the opposite point (“Unanimity at DOJ that these tactics were legal”) because that’s the story their leaking sources wanted them to promote.

What’s most ironic about what the NYT did here is that on the very same day this article appears, there is a column from the NYT Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, excoriating the paper for having published a deeply misleading front page story by Elizabeth Bumiller, that claimed that 1 out of 7 Guantanamo detainees returned to “jihad” once they are released.  That happened because Bumiller followed the most common method of modern establishment reporting:  she mindlessly repeated what her government sources told her to say.  As Hoyt put it:

But the article on which he based that statement was seriously flawed and greatly overplayed. It demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically. The lapse is especially unfortunate at The Times, given its history in covering the run-up to the Iraq war.

That is exactly what Shane and Johnston did with these Comey emails.

The first three rules of journalism are 1) follow the money, 2) follow the money and 3) follow the money. Rule No. 4 is: Always read the documents. The NYT article reads as if the people who wrote it didn’t read them. I don’t know whether that’s because, as Greenwald supposes, the reporters were merely parroting what their sources were telling them, or whether something else was going on. But the Times blew this one badly, as anyone who looks at the e-mails him/herself can plainly see.

Advertisements

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: