Torture report bonus: The “liberal” media played ball with the CIA

    One of our most enduring myths – perpetuated by right-wing ideologues and credulous trolls – is that the mainstream media is “liberal.”

    In truth, the mainstream media is pro-establishment. In truth, it’s willing to play ball with the institutional powers, to accept their selective leaks of inside classified info, in exchange for “good stories.” Most reporters, in my long experience, think in terms of scoops, not ideology.

    Which brings us back to the Senate report on CIA torture. One of the collateral features of the report – a “sidebar,” in journalistic parlance – is the stuff about the CIA’s media strategy. Turns out, the agency was anxious during the Bush era to spin the interrogation story to its positive advantage – to disinform, as it were – and that some heavy hitters in the mainstream media were happy to oblige.

    From the Senate report, Finding No. 10: “The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA’s Interrogation and Detention Program to select members of the media, to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s interrogation and detention authorities and budget. These disclosures occurred when the program was a classified covert action program….Much of the information the CIA provided to the media on the operation of the CIA’s Interrogation and Detention Program, and the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques, was inaccurate…”

    As a top CIA official wrote in an internal memo, the agency needs to “get out and sell” its version of reality to the media. Indeed, “when the (Washington Post/New York Times) quotes ‘senior intelligence officials,’ it’s us…authorized and directed by OPA,” referring to the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs – a fancy name for the CIA’s public relations arm. Federal law prohibits the leaking of classified information, but the CIA did it anyway, cherry-picking material that would make the agency look good. 

    And the CIA sellers found buyers. Various media stories duly depicted CIA personnel as savvy interrogators. The stories overstated the effectiveness of the agency’s techniques (tough interrogation = extracted info = foiled terrorist plots),, but, more importantly, the stories said nothing about the CIA abuses. Like the waterboarding, the rectal feeding, the rectal hydration, the freezings, the beatings, and on and on. Nor did the stories mention that the CIA had subcontracted much of the dirty work to a pair of psychologists who had no experience as interrogators, who didn’t speak the prisoners’ languages, and who knew little about Islam or Al Qaeda…but who nonetheless were being paid $80 million.

    No, only the most upbeat spinnable classified stuff was leaked. And the so-called  “liberal” media lapped it up.

    The press’ complicity took different forms. On another occasion, according to the Senate report, a major newspaper (later revealed as The New York Times) was preparing to name the country where a key terrorist suspect was being held at a secret prison. This was in 2002. But Dick Cheney and the CIA pressured The Times not to name the country, because doing so would hurt the Bush administration’s efforts to get other countries to host secret prisons. The Times duly complied.

    But this willingness to play ball was nothing new. Most notoriously, the top dogs in the “liberal” media aided and abetted the Bush war team’s ginned-up lies about Iraq WMDs, on the eve of invasion and occupation. The Times ran a series of bogus WMD stories on page one (thanks to reporter Judy Miller’s reliance on Cheney-allied con man Ahmed Chalabi), and the paper didn’t ‘fess up to its complicity until it ran a lengthy apologia in 2004: “Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”

    Meanwhile, at the The Washington Post, hawkish spin by the Bush team landed on page one. Skeptical stories, citing skeptical intelligence sources, got buried. To cite two examples: On the eve of the Bush invasion, investigative reporter Walter Pincus wrote that despite Bush’s WMD claims, “U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden.” The so-called “liberal” editors stuck that story on page 17. A few days later, a Post reporter wrote that many WMD claims had already been “disproved” by international authorities “and even U.S. intelligence reports.” The so-called “liberal” editors stuck that story on page 13.

    Even MSNBC buckled under. Again on the eve of war, it fired talk show host Phil Donahue, who was voicing skepticism about the U.S. invasion; according to leaked memo, the MSNBC brass felt that Donahue presented “a difficult public face for NBC in time of war.” And for all the current laments about the downfall of The New Republic magazine, that “liberal” outlet was gung-ho for the Iraq war; it pumped out a string of cheerleading editorials. All told, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan got it right a few years ago, when he remarked that the Washington journalists functioned as Bush’s “complicit enablers.”

    So when a Senate report cites a press-CIA partnership that obscured rather than revealed the truth, well, that’s no shocker. It’s just freshest evidence that the phrase “liberal media” is now what it has always been, a right-wing canard. And care to guess who’s been booked by “liberal” NBC as the prime Sunday guest on Meet the Press? The Jedi master of mendacity, to be indulged anew? Dick Cheney.

    I rest my case.


    Meanwhile, on the Chris Christie front, here’s something he said in 2002: “I cannot believe, given the history of this country, that no matter what the threat to our country that we would forsake our protection of liberties to the extent that we would advocate torture as a way of getting evidence. You have to be coolheaded in times of crisis to be able to not go too far.”

    Here’s what he said yesterday about the documented torture: “I don’t think it would be responsible to comment.”

    Translation: “I’m running in the ’16 primaries, and I don’t need more problems with conservative voters than I already have.”



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


    Despite federal laws that prohibit the leaking of classified information — not to mention frequent complaints from the Bush Administration that such leaks harmed national security — top agency officials sanctioned the behavior in order to improve the CIA’s public image, according to the report. The information shared with the press overstated the effectiveness of the agency’s brutal tactics. And once it found its way into newsprint or airwaves, the CIA did not report the potentially illegal leaks.  – See more at:

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