Dec 1 2007

Tortured Justifications for Bad Journalism

NPR Baghdad correspondent Anne Garrels (Morning Edition, 10/26/07) presented listeners with an unusual exclusive: the results of an interrogation conducted by a Shiite militia.

Garrels described being escorted by Mahdi Army members to hear the accounts of three prisoners–supposedly renegade members of the militia. While Garrels acknowledged that “the three detainees had clearly been tortured,” she went on to describe the contents of their confessions as though they contained credible information:

They were trained in roadside bombs and car bombings in Iran. They say they worked for money and that their orders were to attack Americans and sow suspicion and violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

In case this dubious link to Iran wasn’t clear, Garrels later repeats: “Now, once again, they said they’re doing this for money on orders of Iranian agents.”

The lurid details of the prisoners’ accounts made up much of Garrels’ report, despite the circumstances: “There was blood all over their clothes,” she reported. “They were in such bad shape they couldn’t walk. They had to be dragged onto the chairs, and one of them was just sobbing.” Given this brutal treatment, there is no reason to put stock in any part of their statements. As Alfred McCoy noted in his book A Question of Torture, the U.S. Army prohibited torture in part because it produces “unreliable results…and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

Nonetheless, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep asked questions, and Garrels provided answers, as though the confessions provided real evidence of Iran’s involvement in Iraq. “Now this gets to the question that’s on the minds of many Americans right now, which is what is Iran’s role in all this violence,” asked Inskeep. A better question: Why does NPR believe stories produced under torture provide truthful answers?

NPR ombud Alicia Shepard, who was deluged with letters from activists who responded to a FAIR Action Alert (10/30/07) and others, couldn’t find a good answer, concluding that “evidence obtained through torture is not credible, nor is it good journalistic practice.” (See FAIR Action Update, 11/5/07.)

Morning Edition attempted to address listener concerns by having Inskeep re-interview Garrels on its November 1 program. This segment, however, avoided the main issues raised by FAIR activists, instead discussing the dangers facing journalists in Iraq (which are unquestionable, and irrelevant), and claiming that critics of the original piece don’t want to deal with the violent reality of Iraq.

When the interview turned to the actual use of the confessions, Inskeep asked if reporters should maintain the same standards as courts of law, “which is just, I’m not going to accept this information…. [Torturers are] not going to get the benefit of passing it on to the world.”

Garrels responded: “If we act like that, then we will ignore the reality of the world. I did not condone or endorse in any way the methods that the militia used. On the other hand, to the degree possible, I explained how they were getting their information.” Actually, as the militia made no attempt to disguise its brutality, presumably that was part of the message that it wanted broadcast to a national U.S. audience. Other violent groups will no doubt take note of how successful the Mahdi Army’s PR methods were with NPR.

Garrels did declare that she “had doubts” about the information, and that “information that comes from victims of torture is always questionable.” These points were not made clear in the initial story, as Shepard noted in her email response to activists. Nevertheless, Garrels seemed persuaded by what she heard. When asked by Inskeep why she decided “these were credible statements even if obtained by not-so-credible means,” she replied, “the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured.”

Inskeep compared Garrels’ reporting methods to a police investigation: “So you were working almost like a police officer in that sense, and taking this information that might well be corrupted information, but trying to match it up with other facts that you knew from your long experience in Iraq.” One would hope that most law enforcement officials would appreciate that torture conducted by a gang of outlaws is not only inadmissible in court, it’s also worthless as information.

Moreover, it is already well known that militants have tried to inflame sectarian violence in Iraq. The supposed scoop in Garrels’ report was the link to Iran, which bolstered the administration’s ongoing propaganda campaign against that country (Extra!, 9=10/05). As Shepard observed: “If there was news in Garrels’ piece, it would be that NPR has definitive proof that Iran is behind recent violence. But that can’t be confirmed on the say-so of torture victims in front of their captors.”

It’s doubtful that the network would have taken the claims seriously had the U.S. government not been “making the same claims about Iran this week,” as Inskeep noted in the original story’s introduction. Imagine NPR being presented with people who had been tortured by an Iraqi militia into “confessing” that they had conducted terrorism on behalf of the U.S. government. Such claims would never be aired, even if they “gelled with other things.”