Wednesday's 2,500-word lead story by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti took a predictably horrified approach to revelations about the C.I.A.'s interrogation methods of Al Qaeda suspects, "In Adopting Harsh Tactics, No Inquiry Into Past Use - Interrogations Based on Torture Methods Chinese Communists Used in '50s."
Refreshing as it is to see the paper actually use the phrase "Chinese Communists" as a pejorative, and in a headline no less, the timing is suspect.Is the Times only highlighting the evilCommuniststo suggesttough U.S. methods of interrogationwere evil as well?
Shane and Mazzetti highlighted the "gruesome origins of the techniques" used and tracing them back to "despots" like Pol Pot - the Communist leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge movement in Cambodia who the Times hasn'tlabeled a "despot" in almost six years.
The program began withCentral Intelligence Agencyleaders in the grip of an alluring idea: They could get tough in terroristinterrogationswithout risking legal trouble by adopting a set of methods used on Americans during military training. How could that be torture?
In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.
This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved - not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees - investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.
According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.
EvenGeorge J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known aswaterboarding.
The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used underPol Potwas even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.
Yet the Times managed to avoid calling Pol Pot, leader of the Communist Khmer Rouge, a "despot" in recent coverage of a trial involving a Khmer Rouge killer (it even refrained from usingthe word "Communist.") The last time the Times used the term "despot" to describe Pol Pot was in a headline from July 3, 2003 - 118 references ago. Only now does the Times again underline his evil. To make U.S. tactics look just as evil?
After years of recriminations about torture and American values, Bush administration officials say it is easy to second-guess the decisions of 2002, when they feared that a new attack fromAl Qaedacould come any moment.
If they shunned interrogation methods some thought might work, and an undetected bomb or bioweapon cost thousands of lives, where would the moral compass point today? It is a question that still haunts some officials. Others say that if they had known the full history of the interrogation methods or been able to anticipate how the issue would explode, they would have advised against using them.
This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former senior officials of the C.I.A., White House, Justice Department and Congress. Nearly all, citing the possibility of future investigations, shared their recollections of the internal discussions of a classified program only on condition of anonymity.
Leaked to the news media months after they were first used, the C.I.A.'s interrogation methods would darken the country's reputation, blur the moral distinction between terrorists and the Americans who hunted them, bring broad condemnation from Western allies and become a ready-made defense for governments accused of torture. The response has only intensified since Justice Department legal memos released last week showed that two prisoners were waterboarded 266 times and thatC.I.A. interrogatorswere ordered to waterboard one of the captives despite their belief that he had no more information to divulge
In the view of the Times, anyway.
(The paper is always eager to make opinionated pronouncements of how acts by President Bush destroyed America's overseas reputation. Here's reporter Steven Lee Myers in a front-page story from February 2008: "Mr. Bush never sounds surer of himself than when the subject is Sept. 11, even when his critics argue that he has squandered the country's moral authority, violated American and international law, and led the United States into the foolhardy distraction of Iraq.")
On Wednesday, controversy flared up about the Times burying a story about Obama's national intelligence director saying harsh interrogation against al Qaeda suspects actually resulted in valuable information.
As if on cue, reporter Scott Shane's Thursday "News Analysis," "Interrogations' Effectiveness May Prove Elusive," gave hints the media's conventional wisdom on harsh interrogation may be shifting. Shane's first paragraph actually put for debate the liberal assurance that the "torture" methods used on al Qaeda operatives were counterproductive. Shane repeated the claim from Obama official Dennis Blair that "high value information came from interrogations in which these methods were used."
Even the most exacting truth commission may have a hard time determining for certain whether brutal interrogationsconducted by theCentral Intelligence Agencyhelped keep the country safe.
EvenPresident Obama's new director of national intelligence,Dennis C. Blair, wrote in a memorandum to his staff last week that "high value information came from interrogations in which these methods were used," an assertion left out when the memorandum was edited for public release. By contrast, Mr. Obama and most of his top aides have argued that the use of those methods betrayed American values - and anyway, produced unreliable information. Those are a convenient pair of opinions, of course: the moral balancing would be far trickier if the C.I.A. methods were demonstrated to have been crucial in disrupting major plots.
Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York's financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks.
But which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.
Shane's conclusion? We just don't know yet. Would that the instant experts at the Times admitted such limitations more often.