Aug 28 2009

Spencer Ackerman on CIA torture documents, Ed Herman on Lockerbie


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This week on CounterSpin: A few months ago it seemed like Dick Cheney wouldn’t get off your television screen, insisting that secret CIA documents would prove that Bush torture policies saved the United States from further terrorist attacks. Well those documents have surfaced, along with a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report. So what’s in these documents? And has Cheney been vindicated? We’ll speak with reporter Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent about that.

Also on CounterSpin today, “Outrageous and disgusting” is how White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs described scenes in Tripoli where Abdel al-Megrahi was greeted on his recent return. Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of bombing Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. His release from prison on medical grounds has provoked some anger and questioning in the press–but these were elements remarkably absent at the time of his trial. We’ll talk with veteran media critic and author Edward Herman about what’s gone down the media’s memory hole on the Lockerbie story.


CIA Documents Provide Little Cover for Cheney Claims, by Spencer Ackerman

Obtained: The CIA Documents Dick Cheney Says Vindicate Torture, by Spencer Ackerman

The New World Order Rule Of Injustice, by Edward Herman

The New York Times on the Libya-Pan Am 103 Case: A Study in Propaganda Service, by Edward Herman


CounterSpin: A few months back it seemed like you couldn’t get away from Dick Cheney even if you tried. Everywhere you turned, it seemed, the former Vice President was making the case that secret CIA memos would prove that the Bush administration’s torture policies worked. This served to shift the debate over torture from one of legality to one of efficacy, and it left Cheney daring the Obama administration to release these memos that would, apparently, settle all of this, once and for all, in his favor. Well, this week those CIA documents were made public along with a 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report.

Joining us now to talk about what’s in these reports and what we can say now about Cheney’s defense is Spencer Ackerman, a reporter for the Washington Independent who’s been plowing through all these documents.

Spencer Ackerman, welcome to CounterSpin!

Spencer Ackerman: Thanks very much for having me.

CS: Now this story can get a little complicated. These two CIA memos were released at the same time as this bigger report, but let’s stick to the memos and to that argument Dick Cheney was advancing. Keeping it very simple, is there something here that says what Cheney told us would be here?

SA: Well, remember when Cheney went on Sean Hannity’s show and also when he made a speech in May to the American Enterprise Institute, he said that documents that he had seen and the CIA had prepared would show that the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques had resulted in intelligence that saved lives, prevented attacks, and demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they worked. And this, as you mentioned, got a tremendous amount of media attention.

You’ll remember that when President Obama made his speech at the National Archives on national security, the networks played up Cheney’s speech as a kind of institutional response. And now these documents have been declassified, and it paints a much more murky and equivocal picture than Cheney presented. It’s too pat to say that they demonstrate that the techniques didn’t work, but they don’t make the case that Cheney presented.

And a lot of what these documents say–it’s one document from 2004 and another from 2005, talking about how information from detainees–who at certain points were subjected to the interrogation techniques–resulted in intelligence. And, as well, it resulted in intelligence that was largely historical in nature. You have to combine this with CIA Inspector General’s report from 2004 that was released on Monday, as well, saying that it’s extremely difficult to judge these techniques effectiveness, and that there was no evidence that he could determine that any of the plots discussed when detainees were subjected to these techniques were imminent. It doesn’t say much beyond that, and there’s a lot of redaction. But ultimately, the case that Cheney presented was not supported as he presented it to the public several months ago.

CS: Now the documents are murky enough, some of the media discussion makes things worse, it seems like, there was an LA Times headline that said that “CIA Interrogation Memos Provide Fodder for Both Sides,” which, of course, it true, but doesn’t tell you much about what’s in the memos. There was a reporter from CBS, Bob Orr, that declared that the documents do support the claims of former vice president Dick Cheney that harsh interrogations, at times, did work. Which again, seems loaded with caveats. You wrote one piece that suggested you could see how the right wing was going to make this Cheney was right argument –people like Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard are doing that–no surprises. What kind of argument are they making and where does it sort of fall apart, do you think?

SA: Well, there’s an argument that depends a lot on conflating the difference between saying the documents show that valuable information came from detainees in the program and then saying that it came from the enhanced interrogation techniques themselves. And a tremendous amount of what’s in the CIA Inspector General’s report is, I guess I would say, scrupulously fair and diligent in trying to apply skepticism and calm, dispassion, and that sort of analysis to these claims and never, at least in the un-redacted version that we have, does the Inspector General say definitely this worked or this didn’t work. There are numbers of caveats in the section of the report on effectiveness that talk about the indeterminacy of answering that question. And when you can sort of skip around as you would like and cherry pick, you can come up with an argument that says this program generated intelligence because we know the detainees generated intelligence. And that’s a conflation that has served the former vice president’s purposes.

CS: I guess the message that I got from looking at some of them was that torture was happening alongside conventional interrogations. So really to say that torture was the thing that produced the good intelligence or whether or not it was good intelligence or not is something that’s kind of unanswered in the memos. It does make sense to ask whether the outlets that gave Cheney these platforms to make his case are going to offer similar time to explaining how his argument is now jeopardized now it’s fallen apart. But putting aside Dick Cheney for a moment, you’ve gone through these documents, especially this Inspector General’s report, you’ve been writing about interrogation policy and torture. Has anything you’ve seen struck you as either entirely new or uniquely troubling that you didn’t see before? What’s in here for reporters to dig into if they want to do something other than, say, the kind of back and forth between people on Dick Cheney’s side and the White House?

SA: One of the most remarkable disclosures in this report is not just some of the real lurid stuff that was done–you know, the blowing smoke in a detainees face everyone’s now heard about, the interrogator who brought a gun into an interrogation and so forth–but the systemic nature of it has been rather striking and particularly there’s an interrogation technique that before we didn’t really know about. And that’s something called prolonged diapering whereby, according to annexes in the CIA Inspector General’s report, from former Director George Tenet, and from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, we know that an interrogation technique was allowed for the enhanced interrogation program whereby a detainee was put in diapers for an indeterminate period of time.

One of the more alarming things about that, is that there was a standard interrogation technique, a distinction that Tenet drew in these notes for interrogators called his guidelines from January 2003, distinguishing basically the enhanced interrogation technique of diapering from the standard interrogation technique of diapering, which was supposed to be done for 72 hours. Think about that for a moment, you’re putting an adult in a diaper for three days, and that’s the standard version of it.

I went back and checked a report that Mark Danner at the New York Review of Books broke that the international committee of the Red Cross compiled after interviewing detainees who had come through the CIA’s program, and it makes numerous references to detainees describing being shackled in uncomfortable stress positions for days on end, being unable to sleep because of this. This was a revelation from the last round of disclosures about sleep deprivation being accomplished through stress positions. Then they add references to how they were put in diapers for long periods of time, forced to urinate and defecate on themselves, and this is something that really hasn’t come into the public sphere before. There had been these mentions in the Red Cross report and in some previous documents that the Obama Administration disclosed from the Justice Department earlier this year, but without the context of knowing that diapering was an interrogation technique itself, let alone an enhanced interrogation technique, it was difficult to contextualize that.

And that’s something that really deserves a lot more scrutiny. It’s unclear where, in fact, the legal rational for prolonged diapering comes from. There’s a reference early in the CIA IG’s report to the fact that when the initial round of interrogation techniques for the enhanced interrogation program was being sent to the Justice Department, one of those techniques, and it’s redacted which one, was basically stripped away because the Justice Department said it would just take too much time to figure out how to construct a legal analysis that would exonerate the agency in using this technique. So figuring out the genesis, legally, is something we’ve just simply not been able to see yet.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Spencer Ackerman. He’s a reporter for the Washington Independent. You can read his work on their website

Spencer Ackerman, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

SA: Thanks very much for having me.


CounterSpin: The New York Times and others are raising questions about whether lucrative oil contracts may have played a role in Scotland’s release, ostensibly on compassionate grounds, of Abdel al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. Journalistic skepticism about official explanations is well and good, but you can’t call something a principle unless it’s consistently applied, and that’s just not the case when it comes to U.S. reporting on Lockerbie. Myriad serious questions that attended the Lockerbie case–from the investigation to the crash site itself, to deeply troubling aspects of the trial, to the very relevant political context–seem erased or distorted now by a press corps that largely failed to ask them the first time around.

Joining us to discuss the story is veteran media critic Edward Herman. He’s Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, author and co-author of many books, including Manufacturing Consent and the Political Economy of Human Rights. Ed Herman also regular column to Z Magazine and edits a website,, that monitors the Philadelphia Inquirer. He joins us now by phone from the Philadelphia area.

Welcome back to CounterSpin!, Ed Herman.

Ed Herman: Glad to be with you, Janine.

CS: Well, much is being made right now in the media of the way in which Megrahi was received on returning to Libya. We heard the White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs call the welcomes outrageous and disgusting. You wrote in 2001 of the hero’s welcome given another military officer, one who we know actually did shoot down a civilian airliner. I wonder if you could tell us that story and the relevance of it.

EH: There was in Iranian airliner shot down five and half months before Pan Am 103 was shot down. It was shot down by a U.S. naval boat Vincennes, which was in fact protecting Saddam Hussein near Iran at that time. And it shot down this Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. The captain of this ship, who was noted to be a Rambo type and who, by other naval officers, was condemned for shooting down this plane and for other actions. When he came home to San Diego several months later, he was actually greeted as a hero. And the New York Times even had a little back page article showing him with a flower scarf around his neck and smiling. And as a matter of fact the American public in opinion polls thought well of him because the media had not treated this as a case of terrorism or anything particularly bad.

Well, anyway, the Iranians certainly did not like this very much, and so here we have a very analogous situation. In fact, it’s not that analogous because the question of whether al-Megrahi actually did it is not completely accepted business. He was convicted, but a lot of people who know a lot think that this was a fraudulent trial. But there’s no question that Captain Roger shot down a plane killing 290 civilians. And he was celebrated for it. So you have this wonderful dichotomy. Here the Libyans are greeting a man who they believe, and I believe, didn’t do any killing, and the man who did kill 290 people is greeted as a hero in the United States, and this is treated very benignly.

CS:Besides showcasing the flexible standards of the media on what is terrorism and what isn’t, there’s of course, a direct connection between the shoot down of Iranian Airliner 655 in July of 1988 and the subsequent shooting down of Pan Am 103. Many people thought, in fact, that one was a retaliation for the other initially; isn’t that true?

EH: Oh, it’s very true. It actually was the U.S. and British party line for many months as soon as Pan Am 103 was shot down. Suspicion was immediately on the part of officials that this was an Iranian act of vengeance. And in fact there was a fair amount of information pointing in that direction. There was a claim that they had hired a terroristic group from Germany to do it. In fact,one of the suppressed documents in the trial was a document that quotes the CIA, September 24, ’89. The bombing of the Pan Am flight was conceived, authorized, and financed by Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran’s former Interior Minister. The execution of the operation was contracted to Ahmad Jibril, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, for a sum of $1 million. This is a CIA document of 1989 that was not introduced during the trial.

The politicization of this trial is really quite remarkable. Initially it was thought that Iran had arranged a terrorist act. Then we became concerned about hostages in Lebanon who Syria had some connection with, that we were going to war with Saddam Hussein, so Iran became a concern of ours. So all of a sudden, we shifted from Iran and this fringe group in West Germany to Libya. This shift, I mean it certainly should arouse the media’s consideration. It should make them a little bit suspicious.

CS: Well, one of the reasons that that switch in supposed perpetrator from first an understanding that it was Iran with this Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine with Syria involvement to suddenly it’s Libya– part of the reason that we’re not talking about it is that media are completely erasing it. A recent Chicago Tribute question and answer asked, Who was responsible for the bombing. And the answer was, “suspicion immediately focused on revolutionary Libya seen by the West as a leading state sponsor of terrorism.” That’s simply not true.

EH: Exactly. The interesting thing is they swallowed the Iran PFLP connection, they swallowed it initially and then when the party line changed, they swallowed the new party line, and they did it very aggressively. Some people have argued very coherently that this made a fair trial very difficult.

CS: Finally, and speaking of swallowing the official line, I’m wondering your thoughts about the current coverage. What specifically about the release, for example, do you think there is really any reason to question the compassionate grounds offered for the release of Megrahi?

EH: Yes, I do. I think the Scottish authorities were very worried that if he wasn’t released, he was going to pursue any further of the truth, and that would be awkward. In fact one thing suppressed in the American media is that a Scottish legislator named Christine Grahame has actually proposed that the prosecutor of al-Megrahi be himself prosecuted for suppressing information like those CIA documents.

One of the few substantive things in the New York Times coverage was the admission toward the end of the article that a trial judge, one of the Scottish trial judges, had said that they were under an intense pressure to convict. An honest newspaper would feature that and would use that to look more closely at the whole business. If the judges were under this kind of pressure to convict, what kind of trial was it? Was this really a fair trial? Maybe we ought to look closer?

CS: We’ve been speaking with Professor and author Edward Herman. His column “Fog Watch” appears regularly in Z Magazine and his monitoring of the Philadelphia Inquirer is

Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

EH: Thank you.