Apr 24 2009

Glenn Greenwald on torture, Rose Aguilar on tent cities


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This week on CounterSpin: While it’s pretty clear that Bush-era torture occurred, and that U.S. and international treaties oblige the U.S. to investigate, the hot media discussion centers not on when investigations will begin, but on whether President Barack Obama—not the Justice Department—thinks they should go forward. We’ll talk to Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com about the torture story.

Also on CounterSpin today: Media are flocking to so-called tent cities to try and put a human face on the recession and housing crisis. That sounds laudable, but are the media getting the story wrong? We’ll talk to journalist Rose Aguilar about that.


All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press:

–There may have been any number of important things up for discussion at the recent Summit of the Americas, but if you watched U.S. media about all you can say you really know is that Barack Obama shook hands with left-wing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Maybe even twice. Well, that produced a flurry of reporting and commentary, as pundits tried to determine whether Obama should have so much as looked in Chávez’s direction, with others saying a handshake was fine, but the smile that accompanied the handshake was a no-no. ABC reporter Kate Snow referred to Chávez matter-of-factly as the “Venezuelan dictator.” It’d be curious to find out what sort of policy exists for such designations. If a repeatedly re-elected leader like Chávez is a dictator to be shunned, how do media treat, say, King Abdullah of Jordan? He didn’t get that job by winning any election, and Jordan is regularly criticized for human rights violations, including torture. King Abdullah was Obama’s White House guest a few days after the Chávez meeting; one suspects they may have even shook hands.

At least as shocking as Chávez’s handshake was the book that he presented to Obama—Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The book is considered a classic in left-wing intellectual circles, and is well-known across Latin America. But many of the reporters who talked about the book referred to it as “obscure.” Galeano’s work has been translated into a dozen languages, it remains in print to this day and was so popular—and threatening—at the time of its release that the author was forced into exile. It’s not so much that the book is obscure, then; it’s that its political message is one that U.S. elites try to avoid talking about.

–When Mark Shields and David Brooks took the night off from their regular left/right debate on the PBS NewsHour on April 18, their seats were filled by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and supposed liberal Ruth Marcus, the Washington Post columnist who is known for, among other things, urging an already center-leaning Barack Obama to move even further to the center.

Marcus did not disappoint in her NewsHour appearance, showing (once again) how a good TV liberal is supposed to behave. When the NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff asked her if she agreed with the Obama administration’s release of Bush-era “interrogation memos” and their reported “decision not to prosecute the CIA agents who carried them out,” Marcus answered “Right move on both, and a very brave move on both.” Adding that the actions would prompt “criticism” of Obama from the right for making America weaker, and a “firestorm of criticism from the left” because the left is “latching onto this hope that maybe some of the higher-ups will be prosecuted.”

Marcus said she understood the heat and told how after writing a column opposing prosecutions for torture, “I was called a torture-enabler. And I don’t think of myself that way. close quote”

Of course Marcus is free not to think of herself as a torture enabler, just the same way Bush administration officials in charge of “enhanced interrogation techniques” are free not to think of themselves as torturers. Meanwhile back on earth, most Americans would like to see torture allegations investigated, and their views go unvoiced on public television’s NewsHour debate of the issue.

–Well, more on torture, The New York Times on April 19 ran a story reporting that the U.S. government had used water torture far more often than had previously been told. One prisoner, Al-Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was waterboarded 183 times in one month; in a different month, the same torture was used on Abu Zubaydah, accused of being an Al-Qaeda operative, at least 83 times.

The Times report contains a bit of implicit media criticism, when reporter Scott Shane noted that, “A former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, told ABC News and other news media organizations in 2007 that Abu Zubaydah had undergone waterboarding for only 35 seconds before agreeing to tell everything he knew.” Well, that’s rather a different picture.

The revelation of the actual degree of Zubaydah’s torture is a useful reminder that people who are willing to torture another human being are generally willing to lie about it as well. That’s something that the Washington Post should have kept in mind when they published an op-ed on April 21 from former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. His column cited CIA claims about foiling a supposed plot to blow up Library Tower in Los Angeles as proof that so called “enhanced interrogation” was worth it: “Without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.”

One problem with this argument, somehow missed by the Washington Post‘s crack team of fact-checkers: The Library Building plot, such as it was, was discovered in 2002—and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was arrested by the United States in 2003.

–A New York Times piece on April 16 seemed to advance a curious argument—that a foreign government that complains about civilian deaths at the hand of the United States might not really mean it. The country was Pakistan, where missiles fired from U.S. drones have killed hundreds of civilians. Times reporter Jane Perlez first tells readers that Pakistani officials probably aren’t entirely opposed to the strikes, whatever they might say in public, because they’ve asked for more control over the drone attacks. That logic isn’t easy to follow.

Then the Times says the attacks have been effective, but that there are lingering questions. The main questions the Times raises are about military strategy; the very last item on that list of concerns is this:

“Then there is the matter of public perception, particularly over the civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes, which infuriate Pakistani politicians and the media.”

So civilian suffering is at the bottom of such a list, written off as a “matter of public perception.” The Times goes on to tell us that 500 Pakistani civilians have been killed, but finds a former general to say that many of these dead were likely sheltering militants “and cannot be deemed entirely innocent.” The Times piece closes with a long summary of an unscientific poll of Pakistanis, which found that many of them support these attacks. The survey in question has obvious flaws, as Perlez acknowledged; but it was clearly too important to the point she was trying to make to leave out.

–And finally, we’ve talked before about misleading media coverage of the Employee Free Choice Act. That bill would make it easier for workers to form unions by increasing penalties for employers who violate workers’ right to organize, and by giving workers the right to form a union if a majority signs cards declaring they want one—the so-called “card check” provision. On April 15th, NBC‘s Today show host Matt Lauer offered a standard mischaracterization of the Act, with a twist:

Wal-Mart now faces a threat to its corporate model.

There’s proposed legislation on Capitol Hill that would make it easier for unions to organize employees, the Employee Free Choice Act. It would do away with secret ballots. And some people say, unions say it’ll make it easier for American workers to earn a fair salary. Others, like the guy who runs Home Depot, the co-founder, Bernie Marcus, says it’s going to cripple American business. What’s the truth?

First, when Lauer declares that EFCA “would do away with secret ballots,” he’s wrong. Workers could still use a secret ballot vote if they wanted to; right now employers are the ones who get to choose between card check and a vote.

The kicker is who he’s asking for “the truth” on Employee Free Choice. It’s Mike Duke, the new CEO of Wal-Mart, the adamantly anti-labor corporation exposed last year for forcing workers to attend anti-EFCA meetings. IF NBC is going to discuss Employee Free Choice, shouldn’t they have an actual debate on the matter with different points of view? Well, if you go to the Today show website to try to ask that question, about the first thing you see is an ad for Wal-Mart. That’s probably just a coincidence.

You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR. FAIR also publishes a magazine called Extra! I’ll be giving subscription information for Extra! later on in the show.


CounterSpin: Since the release of Bush-era legal memos and Red Cross documents detailing the abusive actions those memos authorized, there can no longer be much doubt that U.S. officials justified, countenanced, and carried out torture and abusive treatment on detainees. Under the circumstances of reasonable justice, investigations would not be an issue of hot debate. And, in a reasonable media discussion, there would be strong voices demanding investigations, rather than a consensus explaining why they would be unwise.

Instead, the hottest topics in media discussion of the torture story seem to be whether President Obama ought to have released the Bush legal memos, and whether his recent comments on the story might have left the door open to possible investigations.

Joining us to talk about the torture story, is Glenn Greenwald who has been closely following it on his Unclaimed Territory blog at Salon.com. He is also the author, most recently, of Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.

Welcome back to CounterSpin Glenn Greenwald!

Glenn Greenwald: Great to be back, thanks.

CS: You are a writer, but you are also a constitutional attorney. A Times story today, that’s April 23, suggests that the prosecution would be very complicated very hard to do. What do you say to that?

GG: I don’t think there’s much question that there will be some obstacles to the attempt to prosecute various Bush officials. What they did was they purposely created a legal cover in the form of these OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] memos where they had lawyers who were obviously willing to sanction anything that policy makers wanted to do, write very elaborate legal justifications for what are plainly crimes. And there is a doctrine in law that says that if you take certain actions with a good faith belief that the actions are legal, and it turns out later that actually the actions violate the law, that you lack a necessary criminal intent that would be required in order to prosecute. So there’s an argument to make that, for example, CIA officials who read these memoranda and are not lawyers and were told that these things were legal had a right at least under the law to rely on those in what they did. But there’s also plenty of evidence that, for example, policy makers and justice department lawyers knew that what they were authorizing was in fact illegal and that they authorized it specifically in order to create a legal shield to criminal conduct, and if that’s the case—and I think there’s much evidence that there is—that’s the sort of thing for which prosecutions are absolutely appropriate.

CS: And it would be a little premature to prejudge prosecutions today, considering we haven’t even had investigations.

GG: Well I think it’s an important point, which is that for people who are advocating investigations and prosecutions—and I include myself in that group—the argument is not that there ought to be indictments of every person who was in any way involved in the program no matter what the results of the investigation reveal. The problem is that there is an attempt on the part of the political class and the political leaders to proclaim in advance that there should be no prosecutions of any kind and even no investigations of any kind. And the way that typically Americans are treated when they are accused of breaking the law is the Justice Department conducts an investigation, uses all of its resources to assemble the facts and then makes a legal judgement—not a political judgement, but a legal judgement—about whether prosecutions are warranted. And those of us who are arguing for accountability here are simply arguing that the same standards to which ordinary Americans are subjected are the ones that ought to be applied when government leaders break the law; which is the Justice Department ought to investigate, determine how compelling the evidence is, what the legal defenses might be and then make a legal determination about whether or not prosecutions are warranted.

CS: Some of the common media tropes about how investigations would be unwise are that they would be politically divisive—as some have said, a partisan witch hunt. We have also heard that people really don’t have any appetite for them.

GG: This is the argument that had been made repeatedly over the past several decades to institute the overarching premise of our political class, which is that political leaders who break the law should not be subjected to consequences the way ordinary Americans are and that was the arguement that led to the pardon of Richard Nixon. It’s what led to the pardons of the Iran-Contra criminals and it’s now leading media elites almost unanimously to demand that goverment officials be protected. Which is, well, if we prosecute it will be politically divisive and you know there’s the premise that has been at the center of the American government since it’s founding, which is that we’re a nation of laws and not men and any time political leaders break the law and prosecutions proceed it’s always the case that it will be politically divisive. So if you adopt the view that political divisiveness is a reason not to prosecute, what you’re essentially saying is that polical leaders are free to break the law and know that they will never be held accountable. And that is essentially the premise that we have adopted and that’s why there’s such widespread criminality in the political class: because they know that they can break the law with impunity.

As far as political and public opininon is concerned, as is typically the case, one of the principle tactics that media figures use to distort our political debates they literally misrepresent and even lie about public opinion. And so what you’ll hear constantly is that most Americans don’t want investigations and they want the Congress to do the people’s business and not look back and investigate and that the only people who are calling for investigations are the left or the hard left. And if you look at polls, actually what you will find is exactly the opposite. There’s a USA Today poll from February that, as USA Today put it, found that overall a majority favor investigations. Gallup and the Washington Post have independently found the same thing. It’s like 60-70 percent of Americans favor investigations and even with regard to criminal prosecutions, over 40 percent of Americans in the Gallup and the USA Today poll favor criminal prosecutions. That was before the OLC memos were released. So there’s clearly a substantial fraction of the population, probably majorities, who do not believe that political officials when they break the law should be exempt. There’s a Beltway belief which they misleading attribute to Americans generally.

CS: While we have seen endless media attempts to read the White House tea leaves on the question of whether we should look forward, or commence with investigations, the media has had little to say about whether it’s proper for the President to even be making decisions about investigations.

GG: One of the basic principles of our system of government is that decisions about whether the Justice Department will prosecute people are for the Justice Department to make and not for political officials, including the president, to make. In fact, many scandals in our recent history have arisen out of a violation of the principle. I mean, you probably remember as part of the Watergate scandal, the Saturday night massacre where Richard Nixon ordered his Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox because Nixon perceived that Cox was being too aggressive in investigating these crimes and Richardson refused to and he said, “Absolutely not. I am not going to fire the special prosecutor. I’m not going to interfere that way in the justice system.” And then Nixon demanded Elliot Richardson’s resignation and fired the deputy attorney as well and finally found Robert Bork who was willing to carry out the president’s wishes. And in fact, during the Bush administration, lots of scandals arising out of Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department where based on the claims that the White House and the Justice Department were coordinating and making decisions about prosecutions not based on legal considerations but based on political considerations. That’s what it means to politicize the Justice Department, and so when you have Barack Obama and his top aides Robert Gibbs and Rahm Emmanuel running around decreeing that certain groups of people should not be prosecuted and will not be prosecuted, whether it be CIA officials or even in the case of Emmanuel and Gibbs who said that even the designers and architects of these torture policies won’t be prosecuted, what you really start to have is some inappropriate interference on the part of the White House and questions that are appropriately made only by the Justice Department.

And I think that what happened was that there were starting to be some serious backlash and resentment inside the Justice Department over the attempt by the White House to dictate these decisions to them. They’re supposed to be independent. And it was for that reason that Obama on Tuesday finally said when asked, “Well actually the decision about whether to prosecute Bush officials and the authors of these memos is one for the attorney general to make and I, Barack Obama, don’t want to prejudge that.” But you’re right, that had been basically excluded almost entirely from our media discussions. We looked to the president as though he’s some sort of omnipotent figure and it’s up to the the president to make all judgements and decisions about everything in our country, including whether or not to prosecute people, which is absolutely not a power that the president has. So I think because of the Justice Department backlash, the president finally was forced to say “This is a decision for the Attoney General, not for me to make.”

CS: We’ve been speaking with Glenn Greenwald. To read his regular commentary on coverage of the torture story, see his blog, Unclaimed Territory on Salon.com.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Glenn Greenwald!

GG: It was my pleasure. Thank you.


CounterSpin: In the midst of a recession and a battered economy that shows little signs of improving, you’re bound to see more coverage of poverty in the mainstream media. It’d be hard to see less, in fact; a FAIR study documented in 2007, that TV reporting about poor people is extremely rare.

But the kind of coverage we’re seeing now is another matter entirely. Serious airtime and ink has been devoted to what is being called a return of tent cities, reminiscent of the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. Now, on the surface, reporting on homelessness serves a vital journalistic function by shining a light on a social problem that will likely have an impact on readers and viewers. But are the media getting this story right? We’re joined now by Rose Aguilar, host of the radio program Your Call at San Francisco’s KALW. She’s the author of the book Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland. And she recently wrote a piece for Alternet, “‘People Shouldn’t Have to Live Like This’: The Real Story Behind ‘Tent City’—and How the Media Get It Wrong.” She joins us now on the telephone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Rose Aguilar.

Rose Aguilar: Hi, thanks for having me.

CS: Well, your piece is mainly about the tent city in Sacramento, California. So let’s get right to it; when you were there, what did you see the media just getting wrong?

RA: Well, the first time I heard about Tent City was on the Oprah Winfrey show, and when she teased the piece I thought “Oh my gosh, Oprah is going to Sacramento to shine a light on Tent City this is great.” And then I noticed that Lisa Ling, the reporter, sort of stood in the middle of these tents and, you know, put out her arms and sort of said “Can you believe this is happening in America?” But I noticed that she wasn’t focusing on stories. She wasn’t really talking to anyone at length, and then I saw that scene in the newspaper articles and the TV. The question was how could this be happening in America? But the reporters were not asking people how did they end up here, what is your story, what is it like here on a regular basis? I felt like there were so many questions that were not answered. So I decided to spend two days at Tent City for six to eight hours both days, and I just found a completely different story. By the time I got there, people were kind of sick of media. They said that cars were flying in and out. They said reporters were sticking their cameras in tents without asking. And people kind of felt like the media was sort of treating them like a pack of wolves. And I found people who did not just lose their housing. These are chronically homeless people. I met one guy who’s lived in a tent for seven years and he said reporters are not asking us the right questions. They want to know who just lost their house and he said it’s kind of hard to lose a house when you don’t own one in the first place.

CS: So the media seem to be after the story about the subprime mortgage that went bad and the job that was lost and suddenly someone who shouldn’t be homeless is now homeless?

RA: Exactly. While I was there over the course of eight hours I would see a number of teams just come and go. They came in for the soundbite and then they left. And a lot of the people that I met said, “You know, they are not asking us the right questions.” One guy, John Crane [PH], who’s been living in a tent for seven years—who was actually on the mayor’s homeless task force—the guy is full of knowledge, he listens to public radio all day. He was talking to me about AIG. He said, “I hear reporters come in here and almost scream ‘Who just lost their house?’ and everybody is looking at them like, ‘Are you kidding? We’ve been here for years.'” The system is just messed up. You know, John Crane said “Why aren’t you asking us about the fact that there’s no affordable housing, asking about the fact that there’s not jobs?” A lot of the people that I met at Tent City are trying really hard to find jobs but some of them have criminal records or they can’t find one. And also it’s kind of hard to find a job when you don’t have an address or a phone number.

CS: We’ve talked for years on this show about the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, and how often media seem motivated to find those stories of folks who shouldn’t be in poverty or shouldn’t be homeless, and the sort of long-term homeless or long-term poor are relegated to the margins. Well, you talked a little bit in your piece about what the goals of the folks who live there are. Does the media attention help or hurt their long term plan to either find permanent housing or make these Tent Cities more viable? What does the spotlight of the media do for them?

RA: It’s seems like it hurts their plans because I interviewed the Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and at that time he said, “I’m actually open to talking to folks about setting up a permanent encampment.” But when you shine a light on a place like Sacramento where you’ve got a governor who was a former movie star, the mayor is a former NBA basketball player, it just doesn’t look good to having people living in tents. And Loaves and Fishes, which is the group in Sacramento which actually has been serving the homeless for 25 years, they say that a permanent encampment is a really good solution for people who don’t want to live in shelters. Because when you live in a shelter, you have to be in by 8 o’clock at night, you cannot bring any of your belongings, usually it’s male and female so couples have to split up and frankly, a lot of people don’t want to live in four walls. And a lot of the people who I met said if they allowed us to live here and set it up kind of like a KOA [campground] with toilets because at this point there are no toilets, no running water. One company did donate a dumpster for trash but the basics aren’t there. A lot of people said, I met one woman who’s a veteran, she said, “When we are forced to move on a regular basis we lose our ID cards, we lose all of our stuff. You can’t get a job. You cannot claim disability if you keep losing all your things.” “So if they allowed us to stay here for six months even,” she said, “I could probably find a job and get up on my feet.” And I heard this over and over again.

CS: It sounds like standing in the middle of that tent city and saying “Can you believe people live like this?” might be well intentioned but the wrong question to be asking.

RA: The wrong question and also let’s dig a little deeper because our soundbite will sort of say William just got out of jail, he’s living in a tent but what about what’s his background. What does he think about? Does he want to find a job? I mean, there’s more to it than that. Do we really even know where people who just lost their homes live? I think that would be a really good story. Talk to people who’s homes have been foreclosed. Based on what the Loaves and Fishes people that I met said, we’re hearing from people who are going to food banks but they’re finding that they’re living with relatives or maybe they’re staying in a hotel for a month to try to find cheaper housing. But that’s a story that has not been told.

CS: At the risk of tying this too closely, your recent book is called Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland. There does seem to be, or there could be, a connection. Do you think there’s something that ties these two things together, something about the assumptions that everyone– reporters and non-reporters– might have about situations or people we’re not all that intimately familiar with?

RA: Oh definitely. The reason why I wrote the books is because I got so tired of listening to all the pundits on television talk about everything from torture to tax cuts to global warming and everything else you can imagine. And I just feel like a lot of the D.C., New York reporters are so disconnected from what real people think about. I mean, think about how rare it is to hear from an average person or even to hear from—you know, when we’re talking about the torture memos now, MSNBC‘s done a pretty good job of talking to “experts,” but what about people who’ve been to
Guantánamo or reporters who’ve tried to get to
Guantánamo who can’t get there. We have them on our show on a regular basis. So I wanted to ask people why they vote the way they do, if they do vote, because 98 million people don’t vote and then where there belief system comes from and just really try to get past the soundbites and try to get past the sort of divide—you know, the tea party people are over there and then you’ve got the people who are protesting in front of the banks over there and then there’s a big divide. And so I just wanted to get past that. And that was the point of the road trip: to take off for 6 months and talk to real people, most of whom have never been interviewed before.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Rose Aguilar. She’s host of the radio program Your Call, heard everyday on KALW in San Francisco. Listen to the show at YourCallRadio.org. She’s also the author of the book Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland. Rose Aguilar, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RA: Thanks so much.



Three Key Rules of Media Behavior Shape Their Discussions of “the ‘Torture’ Debate”, by Glenn Greenwald (Salon, 4/23/09, Ad-viewing required)

People Shouldn’t Have to Live Like This”: The Real Story Behind “Tent City”—and How the Media Get It Wrong, by Rose Aguilar (AlterNet, 4/20/09)