BBC US Editor Parrots CIA, Republican Talking Points on Senate Torture Report


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by Rupert Stone

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The BBC is supposed to be an “impartial”, “honest” and “independent” news outlet, but today its US Editor, Jon Sopel, showed very clearly whose side he is on. In a short post, “A whiff of hypocrisy about CIA report?”, he regurgitates some staple Republican talking-points and makes arguments eerily similar to those presented by former CIA and Bush officials in their various self-exculpatory media appearances this past week.

His piece bears the revealingly Cheney-esque tagline: “America has not come under serious attack since 9/11 on its home soil – so you would think that would be a source of celebration.” Then, just like CIA Director Brennan at his press conference last Thursday, Sopel kicks off with the September 11 attacks. He speculates that there might eventually be two versions of 9/11, one in which “a war on terror was declared, and those responsible were hunted down and detained, and there were no further attacks on US soil”, another in which “the torture tactics used to hunt down and detain those responsible brought condemnation and America lost its moral authority in the world”.

Both of these versions are inaccurate. His assumption is that the CIA’s interrogation and rendition program was the only factor involved in capturing terrorists. Of course there were other departments of the US government at work – most importantly the FBI (which did not use torture). And there were other methods, besides human intelligence, which yielded information (for example, signals intelligence was crucial to the hunt for Bin Laden).

Sopel also implies that every single person captured and detained was involved in 9/11, despite the fact Abu Zubaydah (once heralded as the “number 3 in Al Qaeda”, and whose torture is recorded in gruesome detail in the Senate’s summary) is now recognized by the US government to have played no role in 9/11 and to have never even been a member of Al Qaeda. Moreover, the Senate’s report documents 26 cases of prisoners who were held mistakenly by CIA (note that the report excludes victims of extraordinary rendition to 3rd countries for torture and all those held by the US military). Interestingly, he seems to assume that the torture worked (note that, in his second version of 9/11, he writes that the torture brought “condemnation”, not false intelligence). But the Senate’s report has produced page after page of detail refuting that assumption, and there is plenty of other evidence to support its thesis. To take one example among many, Col. Morris Davis – the former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo, who was familiar with the intelligence gained from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-value detainees – told CNN last week that he was not aware of a “single plot” stopped by the torture program.

Sopel then claims that most Democrats “think that there are NO circumstances EVER when coercive interrogation techniques can be condoned”. Note the use of capitals to underscore the absolute nature of their position, as if they’re extremists – but this view simply reflects the law, as embodied in the UN Convention Against Torture, which insists that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever” can be used to justify torture. Anyway, it is presumptuous to say that “most Democrats” are absolutely opposed to torture. Obama’s own CIA Directors Panetta and Petraeus have both testified to Congress that extreme techniques might be considered in ticking-bomb scenarios if conventional methods failed. That being so, he is possibly right in the next paragraph when he implies that a Democrat administration would have responded in similar fashion after 9/11, and that their indignation at the report is somewhat hypocritical. But so what? This report does not need to be read and assessed through a party-political prism. If the Democrats are being hypocritical, that does not alter the evidentiary record of gross torture and war crimes assembled in the summary. As law professor Stephen Vladeck said on C-Span’s Washington Journal last weekend: “The facts in the report speak for themselves. What we did was illegal.”

Sopel then advances a tired jingoistic argument made by Dick Cheney, George W Bush and Barack Obama himself. “Weren’t the overwhelming majority of CIA operatives at that time just driven by one thing – a patriotic duty to keep America safe, by whatever means?” He seems to be suggesting that most CIA operatives involved in the torture program should be excused because they were patriots: not an apology he would likely make for Syrian or North Korean torturers. Besides, the Senate’s summary contains page after page of meticulously-assembled evidence documenting unprecedented criminal brutality, and there is no exception in the applicable laws for patriots trying to “keep America safe”. In fact it seems that many CIA officials objected to the savagery they were being asked to participate in – a point omitted by Sopel, who associates patriotism with protecting America by “whatever means”  (hat-tip to Dick Cheney) – while of course true patriotism entails obeying, not breaking, long-standing legal prohibitions against cruelty and barbarism. As Jane Mayer writes in a recent piece at the New Yorker, “There have been a number of true “torture patriots,” many of them at the C.I.A….They are the officers who blew the whistle on the program internally and externally, some of whom have paid a very high price for their actions.”

Sopel’s next paragraph is, quite simply, risible, and deserves to be cited in full:

“Of course I can sit here at my keyboard and pronounce that torture can never be justified. It is an absolute. I do totally believe that. But what if a child of mine had been kidnapped, and the police arrest the kidnapper, but say to me, “Well we’ve got the guy who took your kid, but despite us asking him really politely where he’s being kept, he’s not telling us… However there are these things called enhanced interrogation techniques – we could give them a go.” Would I say no? I’m really not sure.”

So, he’s absolutely against torture, but might support it: a glaring paradox. Sopel’s trying to oppose torture categorically, like any good BBC journalist, while making excuses for the torturers. Respect for civilized values and the rule of law must always be balanced with obedient deference to state power, even when the state in question has ridden roughshod over those very values and laws. Is that what the BBC means by impartiality and independence? Or are war crimes just fine provided they come wrapped in the stars and stripes?

As a brave member of the fourth estate, forever holding the government to account for its abuses, Sopel is “uncomfortable” that CIA should be held “publicly accountable for their actions”. As Brennan snapped at the Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman on Thursday, there’s been enough “transparency” with the release of this report. Sopel scoffs, a la Cheney: “This is not the highways department where the road maintenance programme is under debate. This is national security.” But transparency is not the same thing as accountability: the former involves disclosure of information, the latter involves punishment for wrongdoing. This is a crucial distinction. If there were to be serious legal accountability, members of the CIA and Bush administration could find themselves in very hot water, indeed, given the abundant evidence of criminality detailed in the report.

And this is the most revealing aspect of Sopel’s piece. Nowhere does he acknowledge that the CIA broke the law, even though Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, last week described the CIA program as a “vast criminal enterprise” and a “criminal conspiracy” at the highest levels of government, emphasizing that, under international law, the ban on torture is absolute and admits of no extenuating circumstances whatsoever (a view echoed by numerous rights groups, along with Morris Davis, who in the interview cited above described the CIA’s actions as “war crimes” and advised the culprits to “vacation domestically”). That “enhanced interrogation techniques” constitute torture was obvious to any rational person even before the release of this report, and is now entirely indisputable (the European Court of Human Rights had already ruled earlier this year, before the Senate’s summary was disclosed, that the CIA had tortured prisoners on Polish soil). In his earlier reporting on the summary, Sopel again echoed Brennan when referring to the CIA’s “mistakes”. But these were no “mistakes”: they were cruel, calculated crimes devised at the highest-levels of government.

Sopel ends with yet another Republican talking-point. “I just wonder whether in 10 years’ time, when my successor is sitting at this desk, whether he or she will be writing a blog on the just-released Republican-led intelligence committee report laying into the drone programme from when President Barack Obama was in the White House.” There is no reason to believe the Republicans would produce such a report, given they’ve supported drone strikes throughout Obama’s presidency. Even if they did, the (hypothetical) report should be judged on its own terms: you cannot just dismiss a report because it was produced by this or that party. That the summary is a partisan effort by Democrats, is yet another argument advanced by former CIA and Bush officials to discredit the Senate’s conclusions. And it’s a poor argument: the report is based on millions and millions of CIA records, its findings corroborated by numerous other reports, sources and news stories. And it is not entirely partisan: after all, the Obama administration held up the summary for months arguing over redactions, and tried to stall it at the last-minute when John Kerry called Diane Feinstein to warn her, with standard CIA scare tactics, that the disclosure might provoke violence abroad (it hasn’t). Fox News has made much of Obama’s hypocrisy, using drone strikes which kill people and opposing torture which doesn’t, and that point is reflected here, like so many other utterly partisan and vacuous Republican, CIA arguments.

Why can’t Sopel condemn, in clear terms, a spy agency that has so clearly violated the law? The CIA did not act alone: Britain, along with many other foreign countries, was involved in the rendition program, permitting flights to pass through its airports and possibly allowing a black site to operate on Diego Garcia. The Senate’s report could provide damning new evidence of UK complicity, and some MPs have already called for a judge-led inquiry into British participation. But, as Sopel writes, there’s been enough transparency. I’m sure Tony Blair, Jack Straw, David Miliband and others would agree.

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