Sunday, June 22, 2008

Moral reasoning at the Times

Anybody out there get a blinking red light on your media decision-making radar long about the second paragraph on the front of today's Newspaper of Record?

The interrogator, NameIfoundhardtobelieve Here,* a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a CIA offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called “knuckledraggers.”

I first saw the story in a (badly, for reasons I'll get to in a second) cut version on somebody else's Web site, then got to spend some time with the whole thing when Language Czarina got home with the Times itself and some canned tomatoes. And the Times, at least, addressed the big old Loaded Gun in the First Act Second Graf question. If we're going to put the name of the dude who interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammad on the front page, we need to explain either:

1) Why he (the interrogator, not Mohammad) thinks it's a good idea, or
2) Why nobody can make a convincing case it's a bad idea

And what did the Times think?

Mr. Here declined to be interviewed; his role was described by colleagues. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the C.I.A., and a lawyer representing Mr. Here asked that he not be named in this article, saying that the former interrogator believed that the use of his name would invade his privacy and might jeopardize his safety. The New York Times, noting that Mr. Here had never worked undercover and that others involved in the campaign against Al Qaeda have been named in news articles and books, declined the request. (An editors' note on this issue has been posted on The Times’s Web site.)

Well, that's better than running the story without that paragraph (in effect, announcing that if the Times does something, the lesser papers have no business questioning it). But it doesn't answer the big questions, for which we need to take a brief detour.

Evidence is never neutral, as GE Bentley** reminds us, and stuff never happens without context. In this case, the context isn't just the Plame/Libby/Novak mess (though "had never worked undercover" suggests that the Times too was looking over its shoulder at the Intelligence Identities Protection Act). It's also the context of Guantanamo and the fortuitously timed McClatchy series, assorted demands*** by the foamy-mouthed right to bring the Times to the dock for daring to report on warrantless eavesdropping, the Times's own credulousness before the Iraq war, the Bay of Pigs, and any of a number of tussles between the press and the executive branch that date back to before the rise of the modern "national security state."

When there's an incompatible claim between "security" and the relevance of an item to democratic decision-making, who gets to make the call: the executive (sometimes stupid, self-interested, and venal) or the press (occasionally venal, stupid and self-interested)? You can see why inquiring minds sometimes feel very strongly both ways.

Is there a genuine national-security issue at stake here? Perhaps for the Poles living near the base the Times identified; they certainly have a claim if they become likelier targets for a suicide bomber with a mad on. On the other hand, if they want a voice in how their government decides on doing stuff that could place them at risk of such vengeance, they can't have one without that sort of information. Erwin Canham of the Christian Science Monitor summed it up pretty well at an editors' summit in 1943: Sometimes lives are lost because stories are published. Sometimes lives are saved because other stories are published.

The interrogator's claim against the Times is less a national one than a personal one: He thinks his own safety (not to mention his privacy) might be at risk if he is named -- as, you'll note, the colleagues who identify him are not. The request to withhold his identity is pretty official, coming from the director of the CIA. There appear to be a number of reasons for skepticism about any such claims from this administration:

  • It lied, repeatedly and shamelessly, to take the country to war (but that war isn't the one in which these characters were captured and interrogated)
  • It mandated the use of interrogation methods that civilized societies generally reject (but this interrogator neither ordered nor used those methods)
  • It diverted resources from a legitimate security threat to a contrived one, thus leaving the country vulnerable (but this interrogator appears, on the evidence, to have actually advanced US security interests)

Now for the counterclaim: How many of you are going to go to bed as smarter citizens, better enabled to carry out your democratic duties, because the Times turned down this guy's request not to be named? Right, thought not. The identity has nothing to do with any of the elements that make the story pertinent. (And in case the message hasn't sunk in yet: This is the sort of story a free press provides to a democracy, even in wartime. Get used to it.) As much as the Times might rail about source anonymity, it's still the coin of the realm in national security stories, and it's hard to see why the legitimate considerations that underlie anonymity weren't given stronger consideration here. (Except the interrogator wouldn't talk to the Times, meaning he wasn't a "source," so ... he doesn't have any interests worth protecting?)

Again, on the evidence, this isn't an issue of national security. But it does seem to be rather directly an issue of ethics. How much good is the Times doing, at the cost of how much harm? And could it accomplish all the better ends of that equation by responding to a fairly straightforward request to mitigate some of the personal harm?

I think the Times should have withheld the name. I'm not entirely convinced I'm right, but I'm not at all convinced by the Times's justification. If any of you Usual Suspects or newcomers would like to take a swing, please do. I am thinking about putting this one on the final and will post the pertinent question if that actually happens.

* Nope, not under any illusion that either you or Bin Laden or the FSB can't find or hasn't seen the name. Just suggesting that it's possible to exercise some editorial autonomy even over stuff that Big Important Editors At The Times have signed off on.
** The Blake biographer, in which context a comment like "all evidence bears the bias of the witness, whether it records a tax-payment or a vision" makes perfect sense.
*** Not the time or place to go into detail, but the comparison to the Tribune case therein is remarkably inept and ill-drawn, even by the standards of the dead-enders


Blogger Strayhorn said...

Sunday was quite the day for errant writers. The N&O blew what might have been a great story on possibly-illegal firearms purchases by the Blackwater folks by (A) alleging that certain sales are prohibited to private citizens when they are not and (B) missing the point entirely by failing to note that strawman purchases are always illegal, no matter what type of firearm. If the strawman in question happens to be the local sheriff - well, that's almost as good as finding the mayor in bed with a live boy or a dead woman.

I realize that the Stylebook doesn't cover Class III purchases, but a Google search would have revealed the mysteries of NFA transactions.

Remember kids: asking a cop about firearms in general and firearms laws in particular is a Bad Idea. Most local gun clubs have a legal liaison who can answer these questions. And at least two members of the N&O staff belong to the Sir Walter club (assuming they weren't among the fired folks from last week, said group also apparently containing all the copy editors) which makes this omission all the more glaring.

ObSheesh: Sheesh.

Oh, and the comments section for this story was a great view into the looney bin. As I read them I could only stroke my beard and say in my best Mr Spock voice: "Fascinating."

1:50 PM, June 23, 2008  

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