Nov
05
2007

NPR Defends Torture-Based Reporting

But network's ombud agrees with critics

Noting that an October 26 report based on torture-based confessions "generated a lot of response," on November 1 NPR's Morning Edition attempted to address the concerns voiced by FAIR activists and others. The explanation offered by reporter Anne Garrels and anchor Steve Inskeep dodged the main issues raised in FAIR's October 30 Action Alert. But NPR's new ombud Alicia Shepard agreed with the main criticisms made by FAIR activists, writing in an email response to listeners that "evidence obtained through torture is not credible, nor is it good journalistic practice."

Garrels and Inskeep raised several points irrelevant to the issue--stressing that journalists face serious danger reporting inside Iraq (which almost no one would challenge), and claiming that critics of this particular report would just rather not deal with the violent reality of that country.

Of course, no one has asked NPR to not report on the existence of torture in Iraq. Instead, FAIR asked that NPR not treat the coerced statements of obvious torture victims as credible sources of information.

On this point, Garrels still seems to disagree. When questioned by Inskeep, she did declare that she "had doubts" about the information, and that "the information that comes from victims of torture is always questionable"--something that was never made clear in the original report, a point Shepard made in her response to activists. Nonetheless, Garrels said she was persuaded by what she heard; when asked by Inskeep why she decided that "these were credible statements even if obtained by not-so-credible means," she replied that "the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured."

Garrels gave one example of such details--an account of militia members posing as Sunnis and raping a Shiite girl. Why this would be considered evidence that the tortured were telling the truth is unclear; if Garrels had heard about the incident, it's likely that Baghdad militia members had as well, and could easily have induced their captives to "confess" to the crime.

Furthermore, the fact that militants are trying to inflame sectarian conflict in Iraq is well-known. The point of Garrels' story--and the line of questioning that led to her providing the details of the torture confession--was Iran's supposed involvement in such atrocities, a charge that fits in well with the United States' ongoing propaganda campaign against that country. Garrels gives no indication that she has any source for the explosive claims she relayed beyond the violently obtained testimony of torture victims. On this point, Shepard agreed, writing: "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."

Inskeep compared Garrels' reporting tactics to police work: "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." Of course, journalists are not police officers. But one would hope that most law enforcement officials would appreciate that information gleaned from torture (by a gang of outlaws, no less) was worthless--not the starting point for a journalistic investigation.

Elsewhere in the segment Garrels stated that NPR was "extremely uncomfortable with the situation," and that "I think I made it clear I was as appalled as listeners were by the torture that had clearly occurred before I got there."

Being "appalled" by torture--without really saying so--while also finding it a useful tool for gathering information is a position not all that different from that of the torture advocates in the Bush administration. They, too, likely find it unpleasant, but deem it necessary for their own purposes. That NPR would adopt the same mindset is disappointing.

FAIR thanks all the activists who wrote to NPR. The full transcript of the follow-up report appears below, along with the response from Alicia Shepard.

National Public Radio (NPR)

November 1, 2007 Thursday

SHOW: Morning Edition 10:00 AM EST

Shiite Militia

ANCHORS: STEVE INSKEEP

LENGTH: 1132 words

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A description of torture led to many of your comments this week.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We hear from you every week on MORNING EDITION, and this morning we're going to examine just one report that generated a lot of response. It concerns whether we should have passed on information apparently obtained through torture.

NPR's Anne Garrels was reporting from Baghdad on a Shiite militia and their relationship with Iran. In the interview with us, she explained that the militia leaders said Iran had infiltrated the militia organization. People's letters came because of the evidence the militia provided. Garrels described what the militia took her to see.

ANNE GARRELS: The head of Sadr's militia in the western side of Baghdad invited NPR to an interrogation session of three of these renegade Sadr militiamen, apparently to show us how the movement is cleaning up its ranks. The three detainees had clearly been tortured. There was blood all over their clothes. 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.

INSKEEP: Sydney Walenski(ph) heard those words on MORNING EDITION in Santa Monica, California, and wrote in to say: Let me get this straight, Anne Garrels in reporting information obtained from a torture victim speaking in the presence of his torturers as if it is credible. Has NPR sunk that low? That's hi question.

We have called NPR's Anne Garrels now to ask about this. And there's a more specific question that some people also asked in - were you there, were you there for the torture?

GARRELS: I did not know that torture has taken place before I got there, and I did not witness the torture. And I think I made it clear I was as appalled as listeners were by the torture that had clearly occurred before I got there.

INSKEEP: What were you told in order to get you to come see these people?

GARRELS: I was simply told that the militia wished us to see that they were cleaning up their ranks, that they were detaining bad people within their ranks who were killing people.

INSKEEP: And did people tell you then directly what kind of torture had taken place, or was it just apparent that horrible things had happened because of the condition of the men that you saw?

GARRELS: It was just apparent that bad things had happened, and quite frankly, NPR was extremely uncomfortable with the situation. We were quite scared. When we got to the location our tape recorders were confiscated temporarily. We were clearly taken in a securest route so that we could not return to the so-called safe house.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that this is how reporting has to get done in these extraordinarily dangerous situations. Is it not correct to say you temporarily put yourself in the hands of this dangerous group? You hear what they have to say and then you get out of there so you can report it independently.

GARRELS: That's correct. You know, the Mehdi militia is in many ways a mystery, and I do not think that I was doing them a service by reporting exactly what we saw, but made it clear that this organization has its own secret courts and that they are - they exact their own kind of justice. And I was in no way do I believe endorsing, far more I was revealing their tactics.

INSKEEP: Now, there is another point that people raised here that gets to the essence of whether you learned anything useful from these people who were apparently been tortured.

Mike Conopaki(ph) of Madison, Wisconsin, writes: I strongly object to this story because, he says, torture victims will say anything their torturers tell them to, especially when they're still being held by their captors. Did you have at any moment any doubts whether they were just making up a story because they didn't want to be beaten anymore?

NPR was extremely uncomfortable with the situation.

GARRELS: Of course, I had doubts. But the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured. But I was as uncomfortable as the listeners were with the conditions. The fact that the militia was doing this and making it clear that they had issues with Iran, I thought was important. But, of course, the information that come from victims of torture is always questionable.

INSKEEP: What are some of the details - just one or two - that come to mind that caused you to think these were credible statements even if obtained by not-so-credible means?

GARRELS: The details that came from the questions were such that it went credibility to the story. There were a great number of details about how they operated, who they operated through, why did this. And we do know for a fact that they described posing as Sunnis going into a Shiite neighborhood, raping a Shiite girl. That incident did occur. We were able to confirm that. That was not made up.

INSKEEP: 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.

GARRELS: That is correct. We went back to the degree possible and confirmed the information that was elicited from these torture victims. And indeed, many of the incidents they described had happened.

INSKEEP: One more question from a listener here. Steven Kline(ph) of Portland writes: What the hell is going on here? The only appropriate response a reporter should make in this situation is to say that he or she cannot accept torture as a means of obtaining information and will not report any news extracted using it.

And so I would ask based on that, Anne, should you have followed the same strictures as many courts around the world would, which is just I'm not going to accept this information, I'm not going to pass it on, you're not going to use Shiite militiamen and torture these guys, they're not going to get the benefit of passing it onto the world?

GARRELS: Well, 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.

INSKEEP: Did you have a moment, as you discussed this around NPR's Baghdad Bureau where you said maybe we shouldn't even go with this story?

GARRELS: Yes. But we were not a party to this in the sense that we had no idea in advance. We were not told we would see torture victims. When we saw what we believe to have been torture victims, we reported it. And in the end, if you ignore the reality of what these groups are doing and do not say they torture these people, then that's even worse.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels has just returned from her latest of many reporting tours in Baghdad.

Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

**************************

NPR Ombud's email response to concerned listeners

Dear Listener:

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful observations on Anne Garrels' recent reporting on torture victims. Here are my thoughts.

Alicia Shepard

Ombudsman, NPR

Anne Garrels is one of the finest war correspondents of our time. She has spent the last five years in and out of Iraq, covering the war-ravaged country with a certain fearlessness that is awe-inspiring.

But listeners think it's time for Garrels to come home.

Recently, the head of Sadr's militia in the western side of Baghdad invited her to watch three renegade Sadr militiamen be interrogated. Garrels did not know beforehand that she would find three beaten and bloodied men. On Oct. 26, Garrels spoke with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep about what she saw, saying that the information from the tortured victims seemed to confirm that Iran is fueling violence in Iraq (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15655331).

GARRELS: In the Sadr safe house, the three detainees had clearly been tortured and the story they told was that 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."

Listeners heard that piece and went ballistic. Some incorrectly believed that Garrels watched the men being tortured. She did not.

"Please make clear that NPR was not a witness to torture," wrote Garrels later in an email and "that we were provided (an) opportunity to hear 'testimony' by alleged renegade militiamen. The NPR team determined when the detainees were presented to us, that the detainees had been tortured and so reported. Far from being a party to this, we reported on the abuse."

But is this kind of abuse news? Was their 'testimony' credible?

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.

Ariel Salzmann, a history professor from Canada's Queen's University, thought NPR's decision to accept the invitation was of dubious journalistic judgment, "for it was clearly organized by al-Sadr to rehabilitate his organization before the international public," she wrote. "Once she saw the condition of the men accused, any doubts she might have had about the veracity of al-Sadr followers' claims should have dissipated."

What really upset the 700-plus people who emailed or called is that NPR, well-known for careful reporting, would base a sensitive story on the unreliable words of men beaten into confessing. "What kind of journalism is this?" asked another e-mailer. "Since when do we consider bloody torture victims reliable sources of information?"

"Torture victims will say anything their torturers tell them to (especially if they are still being held by their captors!!)" said another email.

I agree with them. The folks who run Morning Edition also were concerned that maybe Garrels hadn't been skeptical enough, and asked her to do a "two-way" with Inskeep on Nov. 1 to clarify. Below is an excerpt from that aired conversation and you can find the entire segment here:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15835066

INSKEEP: Did you have at any moment any doubts whether they were just making up a story because they didn't want to be beaten anymore?

GARRELS: Of course, I had doubts. But the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured. But I was as uncomfortable as the listeners were with the conditions. The fact that the militia was doing this and making it clear that they had issues with Iran, I thought was important. But, of course, the information that comes from victims of torture is always questionable.

But Garrels did not make that point in her initial story, though Inskeep did show some skepticism. In the follow-up piece, Garrels didn't do a good job of satisfactorily justifying why she and her editor used tortured victims as sources.

GARRELS: We went back to the degree possible and confirmed the information that was elicited from these torture victims. And indeed, many of the incidents they described had happened.

Many listeners think Garrels only complicated the matter when she tried to clarify her story on air. Some said it is morally wrong to use information provided by torture victims because it could endorse or encourage torture. Others stated that Garrels gave a specious argument when she said had independently corroborated the detainees' story. How many times in criminal cases has a suspect confessed to something he had read in the paper, heard on the radio or that the cops fed him just to stop the beating?

I asked the foreign desk editor if he would share the thinking on this and was told that by putting Garrels on the air Nov. 1 to address listener complaints, they had answered all the questions. But I don't think they have. While I have a great deal of respect for Anne Garrels' war reporting, evidence obtained through torture is not credible, nor is it good journalistic practice. "The mere fact they talked about something that had happened doesn't mean that they did that," noted Virginia Sloan of the Constitution Project. "There've been plenty of instances where interrogators plant the evidence. What we do know is that reputable interrogators whether military or law enforcement have unanimity of views that torture does not work and any statements made under torture are not reliable."

By the way, Garrels has left Baghdad. But she will be going back.