09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cheney Sets "Semantic Trap" For Media, Media Blunders In Headlong

Earlier this year, Dick Cheney called for the declassification of two CIA documents that he said would vindicate the use of torture in the war on terror. Those two documents -- a 2004 report entitled "Khalid Shaykh Muhammad: Preeminent Source On Al-Qa'ida" and a 2005 report entitled "Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al-Qa'ida" -- have been released, alongside the CIA Inspector General's report on the interrogation program. The documents very clearly reveal that the CIA believes in the usefulness of the interrogation program. Where it falls short is demonstrating that torture was all that effective.

But as far as our excellent national media is concerned, these documents were supposed to settle the great debate over the efficacy of torture. So they must have, right? No reason to let something like simple logic and basic semantics get in the way.

Via Justin Elliott at TPM Muckraker:

If we're going to have a discussion about torture and the CIA memos -- and it's not at all clear that we are -- it's worth reporting the positions of the interlocutors accurately.

Unfortunately, Politico today fell into a semantic trap set by Dick Cheney in his response to the declassification of the memos, which Cheney himself had sought.

Here's the fantastic job of reading comprehension Mike Allen demonstrated. Cheney's statement -- "The documents released Monday clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda" -- gets translated as:

Cheney maintains that records released this week show that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques "provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about Al Qaeda" after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ah, Politico: Where we quote Cheney saying things even Dick Cheney dare not say.

It wasn't just Politico that made the mistake. Greg Sargent, over at The Plum Line, caught CNN making the same error:

Look at how CNN is now reporting Cheney's claims of vindication today:

Cheney says documents show interrogations prevented attacks

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says documents released Monday support his view that harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects prevented attacks and yielded crucial information about al Qaeda.

And here's MSNBC's Tamron Hall making the mistake over at MSNBC:

I'm grateful to Elliott for finding and elucidating the second level of suck to this story as well:

Curiously, the story later quotes Cheney's statement in full. And curiouser still, it relies on a "Democratic official" to dispute Cheney's (non)claim that the docs show the EITs were effective -- rather than simply looking at the docs, and seeing that they do not.

That's some good advice, given the way the actual documents present all sorts of alternate conclusions. As Spencer Ackerman notes, the two documents "provide little evidence for Cheney's claims that the 'enhanced interrogation' program run by the CIA provided valuable information" adding, "In fact, throughout both documents, many passages...actually suggest the opposite of Cheney's contention: that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA's interrogations.

The 2004 document, which deals specifically with the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, documents that he "largely provide[d]" intel on "historical plots" and that a "fair amount" of the useful information gleaned from the 9/11 architect came in the form of "pocket litter" -- which is "documentation found on someone's person when captured." Ackerman continues:

As well, traditional intelligence work appears to have done wonders -- including a fair amount of blundering on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's part:

In response to questions about [al-Qaeda's] efforts to acquire [weapons of mass destruction], [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] revealed that he had met three individuals involved in [al-Qaeda's] program to produce anthrax. He appears to have calculated, incorrectly, that we had this information already, given that one of the three -- Yazid Sufaat -- had been in foreign custody for several months.

This is a far cry from torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into revealing such information. It would be tendentious to believe that the torture didn't have any impact on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- he himself said that he lied to interrogators in order to get the torture to stop -- but the document itself doesn't attempt to present a case that the "enhanced interrogation" program was a factor, let alone the determinant factor, in the intelligence bounty the document says he provided.

The 2005 document is, as Ackerman notes, "more caveated," and speaks more specifically to the effectiveness of traditional interrogation and intelligence gathering. A key example of intelligence gleaned -- Abu Zubaydah naming KSM as the architect of the 9/11 attacks -- occurred before Zubaydah was tortured.

If the analysis on the efficacy of torture is expanded to include the concurrently released IG report on the matter, you get revelations like this:

Inasmuch as EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] have been used only since August 2002, and they have not all been used with every high value detainee, there is limited data on which to assess their individual effectiveness. This Review identified concerns about the use of the waterboard, specifically whether the risks of its use were justified by the results, whether it has been unnecessarily used in some instances, and whether the fact that it is being applied in a manner different from its use in SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] training brings into question the continued applicability of the DoJ opinion to its use. Although the waterboard is the most intrusive of the EITs, the fact that precautions have been taken to provide on-site medical oversight in the use of all EITs is evidence that their use poses risks.

[REDACTED] Determining the effectiveness of each EIT is important in facilitating Agency management's decision as to which techniques should be used and for how long. Measuring the overall effectiveness of EITs is challenging for a number of reasons including: (1) the Agency cannot determine with any certainty the totality of the intelligence the detainee actually possesses; (2) each detainee has different fears of and tolerance foe EITs; (3) the application of the same EITs by different interrogators may have different results; and [REDACTED].

And at footnote 26, the IG report reads:

In retrospect, based on the OLC {Office of Legal Counsel] extracts of the OTC report, OMS [Office of Medical Services] contends that the reported sophistication of the preliminary EIT review was exaggerated, at least as it related to the waterboard, and that the power of this EIT was appreciably overstated in the report. Furthermore, OMS contends that the expertise of the SERE psychologist/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented at the time, as the SERE waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant. Consequently, according to OMS, there was no a priori reason to believe that applying the waterboard with the frequency and intensity with which it was used by the psychologist/interrogators was either efficacious or medically safe.

I am forced to conclude that the distinction between competent reporting and confused reporting rests with whether the reporter read the available documentation, or if their first order of concern was channelling Dick Cheney.

Cheney Spin On CIA Memos Befuddles Politico [TPMMuckraker]
CNN Gets Snookered By Cheney's Masterful Obfuscation [The Plum Line]
CIA Documents Provide Little Cover for Cheney Claims [The Washington Independent]
Cheney Acts As If Lying More Aggressively Is Exculpatory [The Washington Independent]

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