Today's Papers

Harshly Enhanced, Painfully Brutal Coercion Techniques

The Los Angeles Times leads with the CIA failing to thoroughly examine the value of “harsh” interrogation techniques despite calls to do so as early as 2003. “The limited resources spent examining whether the interrogation measures worked were in stark contrast to the energy the CIA devoted to collecting memos declaring the program legal,” says the LAT. The New York Times leads with Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government resisting pleas by the United States to reconcile with former Baathists. The NYT say Maliki’s intransigence “could become one of the biggest obstacles to stability in Iraq.” The Washington Post leads with the World Health Organization fearing a potential swine flu pandemic. The outbreak has killed as many as 81 people in Mexico, where folks are afraid to go outside. Eleven Americans are also likely infected.

The LAT says that in the seven years the CIA used “severe interrogation techniques” on terrorist suspects, the agency never sought “a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary.” In 2003, the agency’s inspector general recommended a study by outside experts on whether the techniques worked, but Porter Goss, the CIA’s former director, “turned instead to two former government officials with little background in interrogation.” The Times says the resulting memos were limited in scope, led to no change in policy, and were not seen by Bush administration officials who spoke with the paper.

The administration that used these techniques may not have seriously considered their effectiveness, but the administration that banned them has set up a task force to study the matter. It’s hard to see how the results will be anything but “unclear,” the conclusion reached by the WP in its front-page report on the effectiveness of “harsh questioning.” The Post focuses on the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who some officials say coughed up valuable intelligence. Here’s the problem: “[W]hether harsh tactics were decisive in Mohammed’s interrogation may never be conclusively known, in large part because the CIA appears not to have tried traditional tactics for much time, if at all.”

You could spend all of Sunday reading the myriad opinion pieces on torture. In one of the more interesting columns, the NYT’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, outlines the paper’s internal debate over the use of the T-word. The Times prefers to describe the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques as “harsh,” though it recently moved up to “brutal.” Why doesn’t the Times use the word torture? Because “[r]eporters and editors need to leave moral and political judgments to editorial writers and readers,” says Hoyt. But if that’s so, why does the Times trot out the word torture when describing the actions of other countries?

Following the NYT’s example, the WP finds itself in the odd position of referring to “harsh questioning” before describing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogation, which included beatings, a forced enema, sleep deprivation, stress positions, extensive water-boarding, and being repeatedly slammed into a plywood wall, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The WP’s David Broder also seems to fear the T-word, putting it in quotation marks. Yet he boldly describes America’s use of “painful coercion” techniques as “one of the darkest chapters of American history.” Nevertheless, Broder says attempts to bring the enablers of torture—ahem, painful coercion—to justice are motivated by “an unworthy desire for vengeance.” Not the rule of law? Broder also says the recently released memos on torture were the result of a “deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision.” But that’s not what the NYT reported last week or what the LAT reports today.

Michael Scheuer joins the torture debate in the WP, bemoaning “the bipartisan dismantling of America’s defenses based on the requirements of presidential ideology.” Scheuer would seem to be a credible source on the matter, having served as chief of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit. So it’s too bad his op-ed reads like it was written by an angry child who thinks he’s right and everyone else (Democrats, Republicans, whoever) is wrong. For a more measured take on the negative consequences for the CIA, see Walter Pincus’ opinion piece.

In other news, on Saturday Hillary Clinton made a surprise trip to Iraq, where the United States has tried to play matchmaker between Nouri al-Maliki and former Baathist officials. In its lead story, the NYT reports that the prime minister has resisted America’s efforts, despite paying lip service to reconciliation. Maliki’s main adviser on the issue told the Times that the government had “fundamental differences” with Washington over how far to extend reconciliation. He wants the Baathists to renounce their party affiliation and admit their crimes. It’s unclear what the Baathists want, other than an outstretched hand.

TP has a sincere question for the NYT regarding its lead story: Do you think it’s responsible to continue using Ahmad Chalabi as a source, not just of opinions (Paragraph 13) but of information (Paragraph 20)?

Back on the home front, last week New York magazine chronicled the petulant “collective moan” rising from Wall Street, as the wealthy lose some of their wealth. But for those who’ve kept their jobs, things are turning around. The NYT reports, “Workers at the largest financial institutions are on track to earn as much money this year as they did before the financial crisis began, because of the strong start of the year for bank profits.”

The WP and NYT devote space to Barack Obama’s first 100 days. The Post asks a select group of contributors to map out “the next phase of the Obama administration.” The Times asks five presidential historians to compare Obama’s start in office with those of other modern presidents. In a separate article, the NYT says Republicans have “lots of room for improvement” after nearly 100 days of the new administration.

The LAT reports on Lila Rose, a UCLA student who goes undercover at Planned Parenthood clinics posing as an underage girl made pregnant by a 31-year-old man. Rose videotapes her interactions in order to inspire outrage over what abortion foes see as the organization’s wrongdoings.

In entertainment news, the director of the new $150 million Star Trek film tells the NYT that he was “not a fan” of the original series. The WP reports on the debate over whether Susan Boyle, the somewhat homely Scottish singing sensation, should have had a $57 makeover. And the NYT’s real-estate section profiles a Broadway couple and their East Village apartment. But skip the article and watch the accompanying When Harry Met Sally-like audio slide show, which is sure to give you a toothache.

The NYT reviews a new book on religion that argues “God is back, for better.” In my opinion, it’s a wonderful book written by two brilliant and thoughtful authors. That one of them is my boss has nothing to do with it.

Professor Mohammed … In its story on interrogations, sources tell the WP that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “continued to be a valued source of information long after the coercive interrogation ended. Indeed, he has gone on to lecture CIA agents in a classroom-like setting, on topics from Greek philosophy to the structure of al-Qaeda, and wrote essays in response to questions. …” So maybe that’s what the paper meant by “harsh questioning.”