USA Today and the Torture ‘Debate’

USA Today weighs in today (5/10/11) on the argument that U.S. torture of detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was instrumental to tracking down Osama bin Laden. Like other outlets, the newspaper does a pretty lousy job of summarizing the evidence.

Under the headline “Raid Renews Debate on Interrogations,” reporter Oren Dorell suggests this starting point:

But the revelation that tips prodded from captured Al-Qaeda members subjected to “enhanced interrogations” led to the capture of Osama bin Laden has ignited a debate over whether Obama should revisit the policies he cast aside.

There is no strong evidence that torture “led” to any such thing. But that’s the starting point for the paper’s discussion, with the first quote coming from Bush torture lawyer John Yoo. The piece then quotes National Security Council spokesperson Michael Vietor saying, “There’s no way that information obtained by EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to bin Laden.” That would seem to undercut the premise of the discussion USA Today has set up. Not to worry–they line up four former Bush officials to endorse the argument that torture worked (Michael Mukasey, Richard Perle, Michael Hayden and former CIA official Jose Rodriguez).

Readers then hear from two former interrogators–Glenn Carle and Matthew Alexander–who do not think torture works. That is quickly countered by former Bush official Marc Theissen. And then readers get a quote from Ken Gude of the liberal Center for American Progress, who is a proponent of both sleep-deprivation and U.S. drones in Pakistan.

That’s not much of a “debate”: a slew of torture proponents, a few critics, and a flawed understanding of the facts that are known.

On the paper’s editorial page, John Yoo gets more space to push for torture. That is supposed to “balance” the paper’s editorial, which isn’t exactly anti-torture:

Opponents of torture responded by trying to downplay the importance of those techniques to the bin Laden raid. They continued to argue that torture doesn’t work and is never justified.

If only the answers were so simple or morally unambiguous. They aren’t.

They add:

It’s clear that torture played some role in piecing together the chain of information that led to bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan. CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged as much. But he went on to muddy the waters, leaving unclear whether the information obtained by torture was indispensable or just a small factor in a sea of data investigators were dissecting.

Waiting for the head of the CIA to issue a clear explanation of CIA activities seems rather absurd.

The best case that torture proponents can muster is that some people who were tortured issued misleading denials that, many years later, led in some fashion to obtaining the actually useful information used to track down Osama bin Laden. As one L.A. Times article put it, “none of the three most critical pieces of information–the courier’s name, the area of Pakistan in which he operated and the location of the compound in which Bin Laden was living–came from detainees.” But that doesn’t stop outlets like USA Today from presenting the supposed fact that torture “led” to bin Laden’s killing as a “revelation.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.