The revelations that the Bush Administration has engaged in the secret jailing and torture of people in gulag-like conditions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere while pursuing the warrantless wiretapping of Americans at home should send shivers down the spines of all who value our constitutionally protected civil liberties. Yet although the institutions that have reported on these chilling developments clearly deserve our gratitude, the manner in which they have done so nevertheless inspires suspicion and unease.
The New York Times held its story on domestic spying for more than a year and published it only when it became apparent that it would appear in a book by its reporter James Risen. Executive editor Bill Keller refuses to discuss his decision to delay publication, or to confirm reports that top Times editors were summoned to (and possibly threatened by) the White House. In light of the Justice Department’s investigation into the identity of the leaker responsible for the story, this may be an understandable position. But Keller’s “woefully inadequate” response to twenty-eight questions from the Times public editor about the case closes the much ballyhooed post-Jayson Blair era of openness and transparency at the country’s most influential newspaper. Once again, Times editors are telling us that they know what we plebes need to know, and they’ll thank us to take it and like it if we know what’s good for us.
In the case of the Washington Post‘s scoop on secret CIA prisons at old gulag sites, its editors agreed to redact the names of two of the countries involved. The Post article explained that this was “at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.” Like Keller, Post executive editor Len Downie refuses to discuss his reasoning or to address the issue of White House meetings or threats, and like Keller’s, his paper faces a Justice Department investigation of the leak.
But the Post‘s argument for withholding is weaker–the information in question was widely available elsewhere. Independently, Human Rights Watch had scoured the flight logs of airports used by the CIA for its “rendition” flights, which pointed to Poland and Romania as the sites of the secret prisons. HRW published the nations’ names on its website and they appeared in publications all over the world virtually simultaneously with the Post story.
This game took an even odder twist when, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was about to depart for these very nations a few weeks later, ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross discovered that the CIA appeared to be rolling up the prisons and moving the prisoners to new locations somewhere in the North African desert. This maneuver allowed Rice to deny their existence with slightly more attention to veracity than is usual for top Bush officials.
Again, the Administration leaned on the network not to name the two countries–which were by then common knowledge. Given four days to make its case, the Administration took its time, replying well past the deadline for ABC’s planned broadcast of Ross’s report. Just as Rice’s plane was pulling its wheels up, ABC got the call they’d been waiting for asking them not to identify Poland and Romania. The executives agreed to the Administration’s request.
What makes this story farcical is not only that the countries’ names had already been published all over the world but that they had been published by ABC News. Even as the top ABC brass agreed to edit Ross’s report to drop his direct confirmation of the two countries’ identities, an audio version of his radio report was available on the ABC News website. In it he explained in a no-nonsense manner, “The Secretary of State is being asked to confirm or deny reports that the CIA established secret prisons for terrorist suspects in Poland and Romania. Current and former CIA officers tell ABC News the truthful answer is ‘Yes, they did,’ starting in Poland in 2002.” Yet that night on World News Tonight as well as on Nightline, Ross’s major scoop was played down, and the “credit” or responsibility for identifying the two countries went to Human Rights Watch rather than Ross’s energetic reporting.
To be fair to ABC–and as its spokesman continuously pointed out to me–there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind just which countries were hosting the torture camps. Polish and Romanian officials were questioned about the camps and issued denials, but clearly neither country has an interest in proving the President a liar–again–much less in admitting to its citizens its participation in Soviet-style secret prisons. And Ross’s reporting, like that of the Post and the Times, stands out even with the cutesy avoidance of invoking the network’s authority. But that only makes the willingness of ABC executives to cave in to the White House appear all the more absurd. It also sends a signal to other, less powerful media organizations that there is no sense in resisting the White House’s war on the press, as it will win even when its demands make no sense.
In fact, my sources at ABC tell me that when the ABC execs agreed to the Administration’s “request” not to name the two nations, they were unaware that ABC radio and ABC.com had already broadcast their names. By the time the network realized it was agreeing not to do something it had already done, everybody had become obsessed with the multimedia production of introducing the two new anchors for World News Tonight, Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, which occurred that day.
Even so, the willingness of our most powerful media corporations to defer to this White House for reasons that relate far more to political embarrassment than national security is deeply disconcerting. The “secrets” in question were secret only to American news consumers. And the Bush team has repeatedly demonstrated its contempt not merely for the media but for normative standards of truth. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you…”