Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Washington Post Loses Focus

Monday night I read a story in the Washington Post called :

Medical Officers Violated Ethics While Overseeing Interrogations, Red Cross Says

Once I clicked on that title it took me to the actual story that curiously had a different headline with a different focus: 

Report Calls CIA Detainee Treatment 'Inhuman'

Yesterday morning when I got up I  decided to check the story again to see if more comments had been added by the readers. But when I looked for the story called Medical Officers Violated Ethics While Overseeing Interrogations, Red Cross says, I couldn't find it.  I saw the link to the story called Report Calls CIA Treatment 'Inhuman' that I'd seen the night before but there was no longer a storywith the Red Cross headlineI finally discovered that the reason I couldn't find this headline was because it had been replaced in the wee hours of the morning with this bland sounding headline that had nothing to do with the critical role medical professionals played in Bush era interrogations.

CIA Detainee Treatment Assailed 

(the link to the CIA Detainee Treatment Assailed story takes you to the story called Report Calls CIA Detainee Treatment 'Inhuman')

Leaving aside the confusing use of multiple headlines for one story I decided to read the article again so I could see if they eliminated the information about the ethically challenged medical people when they eliminated the earlier headline. What I discovered was that the information about the medical people was still in the story but that extra paragraphs had been added to the piece overnight that caused the focus of the story to shift.  It was no longer a story focused on Medical officers violating medical ethics by participating in interrogations, as it originally was, but the story now focused more on the CIA

The new paragraphs that were added were not essential to the original story but were essential in allowing the CIA the opportunity to deflect attention away from the ICRC report itself.  For instance, there was a sentence added to the original piece that now quoted an ICRCspokesperson saying:

An ICRC spokesman confirmed the authenticity of the document and said the organization"deplores that what was to be a confidential report has been made public."

The insertion of this new statement by the ICRC, while fine in and of itself really appeared to be inserted in the story specifically to provide backup for the absurd new CIA statement that had also been added to the story: 

The CIA declined yesterday to comment on the report, citing the Red Cross's own policy of maintaining the confidentiality of its reports. But spokesman Mark Mansfield noted that the agency had long since ended the controversial interrogation program.

Prior to the ICRC statement being added to the story there was an old quote from an anonymous U.S. official that was used instead of the “new” quote by Mark Mansfield above. 

The CIA had no immediate comment on the report. Previously, top Bush administration officials defended the interrogation methods, saying they were legal and necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. A U.S. official, commenting on a leak of portions of the report in March, said: "It is important to bear in mind that the report lays out claims made by the terrorists themselves

Another added paragraph gave Mr. Mansfield more opportunity to use the “looking forward, not backward” Obama administration mantra to spin the story without him having to comment on the actual charges in the report.  

"Director [Leon] Panetta has taken decisive steps to ensure that the CIA abides by the president's executive orders. That means CIA will not use interrogation techniques outside the Army Field Manual," he said. He noted that Panetta also has stated repeatedly that "no one who took actions based on legal guidance from the Department of Justice at the time should be investigated, let alone punished."

After the statement by Mr. Mansfield that “no one who took actions based on legal guidance from the Department of Justice at the time should be investigated, let alone punished” this sentence from the original story was inserted:

Previously, top Bush administration officials defended the interrogation methods, saying they were legal and necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

And finally, after the Obama administration and Bush administration defense statements were inserted into the story we see this new paragraph almost at the end of the story:

*The report's release puts added pressure on the Obama administration, which has banned the use of waterboarding and similar techniques but has resisted calls *to conduct legal inquiries to determine whether Bush administration officials broke laws.

* Note: even though the piece stated that the release of the ICRC report puts added pressure on the Obama administration, it never mentions the fact that the ICRC actually called for investigations and punishment in their report.

The story ends with a new paragraph that actually should have appeared in the original version that focused on medical people; however, the placement of this paragraph in the revised story is very odd. Why would they include this relevant paragraph but do it in a way where it seems quite out of place in the revised story? It looks like it was inserted almost as an afterthought?  

The presence of medical personnel at CIA interrogation sites has been reported previously, but ICRC investigators found that their participation in some of the more harsh episodes to be a severe breach of medical ethics. The report said the officials were enlisted to ensure that the detainees did not die or suffer irreparable damage.

Now after seeing the headlines and content change in the story what is a Washington Post reader to make of all of this? If you’re a reader like me, who has previously documented where the Washington Post downplayed serious charges about torture, like my General Taguba  piece on this blog, then you are very suspicious about how a story about the unethical medical conduct documented by the ICRC somehow morphed into a story that was more scattershot in its focus. 

My first thought was that the Post was trying to downplay the complicity of medical personnel in the Bush interrogation program. And then it dawned on me after reading the following  comments in a piece by  Daniel Froomkin   that appeared in his excellent blog  at the Washington Post:  

News stories this morning dwell on the report's finding that medical personnel at the prisons took part in the torture of detainees, in gross violation of both their own professional ethics and international law (except for the Post).

But the report, which was based on interviews with the 14 "high value" detainees transferred from the secret prisons to Guantanamo in September 2006, also raises and expresses "grave concerns" about a very significant unanswered question: What happened to all the other detainees who passed through the secret CIA prisons who we still don't know about?

Froomkin also cited other news that came out of the ICRC report:

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald calls attention to the report's demand "that the US authorities investigate all allegations of ill-treatment and take steps to punish the perpetrators, where appropriate." Writes Greenwald: "Yet Obama's handpicked CIA Director, Leon Panetta, continues to demand that there be no investigations of any kind, let alone prosecutions."

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's: "The Red Cross does not reach quickly to an 'investigate and punish' recommendation. That happens only where the evidence of criminal conduct is manifest. And it was in this case. They use the word 'torture' repeatedly, without equivocation or qualification....

"The for the Obama Administration: why has Eric Holder blocked the criminal investigation that a proper understanding of his duties would lead him to initiate?"

So based upon the information presented by Froomkin I no longer believe that the Post was just trying to downplay the ICRC's documentation of  medical ethics violations when they added the CIA "CYA" paragraphs. I now believe that The Post was actually trying to downplay the entire ICRC report.

Instead of covering the multiple lines of inquiry that were contained in the report, which would require several stories, the Post was attempting to write one story to cover the entire report. And because of this they ended up having a very schizophrenic story that didn’t know if it was about medical ethics violations, a story about the overall CIA “interrogation” program or a story that was about the ICRC calling for investigations into the Bush interrogation program. 

But perhaps I'm being too hard on the Post. Perhaps I'm allowing my memory of how they treated the Taguba accusations of torture  to color my perception of the Warrick/Tate story. Perhaps this was not a deliberate attempt to downplay the ICRC report, as I suspect, but was nothing more than someone being asleep at the wheel when they allowed this mishmash of a story to be published in the first place. 

In fact, I actually hope I’m wrong  because I think Washington Post readers, like me, are desperate to see the Post do a more in-depth story about the medical personnel angle than was touched on in the schizophrenic Joby Warrick and Julie Tate piece and in this short AP story that the Post also published. We want to see more of the fantastic investigative pieces like Dana Priest did on the CIA Black Sites but we also want to see good everday reporting that doesn't just rely on the comments from the usual suspects. For instance where was the comment from the AMA or other medical organizations in the Warrick/Tate story? Why only comments from the CIA?

What people like me want to see from the Post  is evidence of the “major focus”  on the torture issue that Scott Wilson said the Post supported when he held his Post chat today. 


New York, NY: Now that the Red Cross torture report is out, it's clear that the U.S. tortured multiple prisoners with multiple banned techniques. And it's been going on for years. By refusing to investigate the parties involved in instituting this program, and even actively invoking claims like the "state secrets privilege" to shield any possibility of a reckoning, isn't the Obama Administration also implicating themselves? Why else would they use the same extreme claims of executive power, in some cases more so, to facilitate this ongoing cover-up? Also: Are any intrepid WaPo reporters digging into this topic, or is it editorially verboten?

Scott Wilson: We've been writing about it extensively for years - we're the paper that brought you the CIA black sites - and are doing so now. It's a major focus for us.

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