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Jun 05 2009

On torture-15: Media complicity in secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

One of the best ways to ensure good government is to have as much transparency as possible. When people are allowed to work behind closed doors with the promise of secrecy, abuses inevitably occur. The Bush/Cheney administration was highly secretive and unfortunately, when it comes to things like torture, the “extraordinary renditions” of prisoners (i.e., sending them to other countries that practice torture), and illegal wiretapping, the Obama administration seems to be also trying to keep as many things secret as possible. In fact, on some matters such as illegal wiretapping, Obama is making even more sweeping claims of presidential authority to keep secrets than Bush/Cheney did.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[C]andidate Obama unambiguously vowed to his supporters that he would work to ensure “full accountability” for “past offenses” in surveillance lawbreaking. President Obama, however, has now become the prime impediment to precisely that accountability, repeatedly engaging in extraordinary legal maneuvers to ensure that “past offenses” — both in the surveillance and torture/rendition realm — remain secret and forever immunized from judicial review. Put another way, Obama has repeatedly done the exact opposite of what he vowed he would do: rather than “seek full accountability for past offenses,” he has been working feverishly to block such accountability, by embracing the same radical Bush/Cheney views and rhetoric regarding presidential secrecy powers that caused so much controversy and anger for the last several years.

This Raw Story report shows the extremes to which Obama is willing to go: “For the first time, the Obama Administration’s brief contends that government agencies cannot be sued for wiretapping American citizens even if there was intentional violation of US law. They maintain that the government can only be sued if the wiretaps involve “willful disclosure” — a higher legal bar.”

Dahlia Lithwick demolishes all the arguments for keeping secrets that are used to justify the Obama administration’s actions, while Greenwald gives a summary of the views of all the people who are excoriating the abuses of the state secrets privilege by the Obama administration.

To see what extreme extents this penchant for secrecy is being taken by Obama, read the extraordinary case of what happened to Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for Binyam Mohamed (whose case was discussed earlier). Smith wrote a memo to President Obama about Mohamed’s torture case. As required, he had to first send it to the Privilege Review Team, a secret tribunal of Pentagon officials that monitors all the communications of lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners.

The PRT returned the memo to Smith with everything in it redacted and did not forward the concerns raised to Obama. (See the letter and redacted memo here). So Smith wrote directly to Obama and sent along the redacted memo, showing Obama how he was being denied access to information by the people below him, even though he was their superior officer. Unbelievably, Smith is now being charged with violating official secrecy merely for sending Obama the redacted memo, which is entirely blacked out. In other words, he is being charged for alerting the president that he was not getting the full story and for this act he faces a possible six months in prison if convicted. So much for Obama’s promise of increased transparency.

While some courts have have dealt a setback to the government’s attempts to keep secrets, the Obama administration seems likely to doggedly continue to fight to keep as much as possible under wraps.

In this they are aided and abetted by the media. You would think that the media, of all institutions, would vigorously fight any attempt by the government to keep secrets, to be in the forefront in championing openness. What is extraordinary is that some establishment journalists have become the strongest advocates for allowing the government to keep secrets, showing how much they have become co-opted by the government as an accomplice.

Richard Cohen wrote of the Lewis Libby prosecution: “it is often best to keep the lights off.” ABC News’s Peggy Noonan said this week of torture investigations: ‘some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking.” The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, condemning Obama for releasing the OLC memos [i.e. the infamous Jay Bybee and John Yoo memos authorizing the use of torture], warned: “the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn’t blind its shadow warriors.” And the favorite mantra of media stars and Beltway mavens everywhere — Look Forward, Not Backwards — is nothing but a plea that extreme government crimes remain concealed and unexamined.

This remains the single most notable and revealing fact of American political life: that (with some very important exceptions) those most devoted to maintaining and advocating government secrecy is our journalist class, of all people. It would be as if the leading proponents of cigarette smoking were physicians, or those most vocally touting the virtues of illiteracy were school teachers. Nothing proves the true function of these media stars as government spokespeople more than their eagerness to shield government actions from examination and demand that government criminality not be punished.

As another example of media collusion with establishment power, the Bush administration used the media, especially the extraordinarily gullible Brian Ross of ABC News to advance the false story that torture worked quickly and efficiently to reveal vital information. The Bush White House seemed to look on Ross as the ‘go to’ guy when they wanted to disseminate false information to the public.

The arguments that have been put forward to excuse and justify those who tortured and authorized torture are so pathetic that they hardly need refuting. The fact that they are given any credibility at all is because our media is so slavishly faithful to the establishment, so complicit in their crimes, that they eagerly seek to find justifications for even the most horrific actions, and allow these pseudo-arguments to be repeatedly advanced without rebuttal.

As Mark Danner writes in the New York Review of Books:

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its “stenographic function” and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president’s insistence that these interrogations were undertaken “legally” and “in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles” continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush’s oft-repeated assertion that “the United States does not torture” is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. That they are so reported is a political fact, and a powerful one. It makes it possible to contend that, however adamant the arguments of the lawyers “on either side,” the very fact of their disagreement makes the legality of these procedures a matter of partisan political allegiance, not of law.

The facts are clear: Torture is illegal and morally despicable under all circumstances. The US government authorized and committed acts of torture.

The consequences should also be clear: Those who authorized and committed torture should be investigated and prosecuted.

The fact that there is a ‘debate’ at all on this very clear issue is a sign of how debased our commitment to the rule of law has become, and the sorry role that the media has played in bringing it to that state.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Danner on how the press is obfuscating the torture issue

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