A Policy Subject To Interpretation

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) released its report on detainee abuse, and considering the magnitude of its conclusions it was relatively quietly received. Dan Froomkin, Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton and a few others gave it serious attention, and Andrew Sullivan has been particularly good about highlighting the issue recently. But Horton points out the New York Times will not even use the word "torture" except "when a neighbor plays his stereo too loudly in the apartment next door." Discussing actual torture is simply verboten, and in fact just the opposite is the case – its opinion pages are reserved for apologists like Reuel Marc Gerecht. Note that in Gerecht’s reading the United States uses "aggressive interrogation" but engaged in "the extrajudicial rendition of terrorist suspects to countries that practice torture". In other words, other countries torture – not us.

It is not that the big media outlets have refused to cover the story at all, which is a frustrating and deceptive defense that seems to be used fairly often. The magnitude and duration of coverage is enormously important as well. Think about the saturation coverage given to the governor of Illinois, a man with at best a tenuous connection to the president-elect. There has been a constant daily drumbeat of stories going over the same ground, and for what purpose? Between the day it broke and today what has been added? More to the point, it has been featured over and over again in all major media outlets and the breathless hints of trouble for Barack Obama have been on an endless loop. In cases like this it makes perfect sense to use a generalized term like "the media" because the individual players have moved in a herd. As a result the public gets it continually reinforced as a major story, and many become persuaded that it is.

That kind of coverage is a far cry from the treatment of the SASC report; the difference was of both degree and kind. In degree it was mentioned in the top stories of the of the day but generally did not receive the in-depth analysis reserved for whole segments of news programs. If it did get anything more than a summary treatment it generally received it below the latest foibles of Rod Blagojevich. The difference of kind is that it was usually dropped after that. Instead of hammering away on it day after day, interviewing members of the committee, asking them about their remarkable unanimous vote on the final report, asking about possible legal consequences, and generally letting its impact and implications play out for the public to consider, it was simply let go. (There have been some important exceptions, but they are just that – exceptions.)

It is hard to overstate what a disservice that is to the public, because it is an extraordinary document that truly deserves ongoing reflection. In referring to the now-infamous "Torture Memo" signed by the president on on Feb. 7, 2002 the report says it "replace[d] well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation". It accuses the administration of systematically breaking the law in the plainest ("legal compliance") possible language.

If the media needed to advance the story somehow with additional facts (though ceaseless speculation is acceptable for a juicy enough (via) story) the vice president provided it this week. In an interview he flatly stated that he approved the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I used to think a high government official like a vice president freely admitting to a war crime would be absolutely enormous news. Instead it was met with mostly indifference. As Greenwald pointed out, part of the reason for the studious ignoring of the issue by the media is that "most of the establishment supported these crimes and the criminals who unleashed them." This is the same reason the Congressional Democratic leadership is reluctant to aggressively pursue an investigation, much less criminal charges, against an administration that is more and more brazen in publicly acknowledging its criminal behavior.

Those of us who are appalled by the increasingly obvious wrongdoing by our leaders are therefore faced with some enormous obstacles. It is not enough to blame the president and say that his administration is responsible for all our troubles. He was certainly the author of them, but had some important assistance: A political leadership that was apparently more concerned with being in on the secrets than doing anything about them, and a press corps that values access and sources over skepticism and investigation. Both willingly allowed themselves to be compromised, and both are desperate to keep the secrets of this era buried. Those who want to unearth them have a lot of work to do.

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