11/05/2007 05:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NPR Defends Torture-Based Reporting

A recent NPR Morning Edition report that passed off torture victims' confessions as journalistic evidence has generated a storm of criticism. Following an action alert by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), over 700 concerned listeners wrote in to complain to NPR's new ombud Alicia Shepard. Shepard herself agreed with the main criticisms made by FAIR activists, writing in an email response to listeners that "evidence obtained through torture is not credible, nor is it good journalistic practice." Morning Edition, on the other hand, continues to defend their torture-based reporting.

The report, by NPR's Iraq correspondent Anne Garrels (10/26/07), was based around the accounts of three men who were being held prisoner by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia. The captives were supposedly "renegade" members of Sadr's militia who said "they were trained in roadside bombs and car bombings in attack Americans and sow suspicion and violence between Shiites and Sunnis." The details of the prisoners' accounts made up much of Garrels' report, despite her noting that "the three detainees had clearly been tortured."

"There was blood all over their clothes," Garrels reported. "They were in such bad shape they couldn't walk. They had to be dragged onto the chairs, and one of them was just sobbing."

On October 30, FAIR issued an action alert in response to the report, writing that:

Given the brutal treatment of the three men, there is no reason to put any stock whatsoever in the claims they made in the presence of their captors. As Alfred W. McCoy writes in his book, A Question of Torture: "The past two millennia are rich with examples that confirm, time again... the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain." Nevertheless, Garrels began recounting their statements in response to anchor Steve Inskeep's asking "the question that's on the minds of many Americans right now, which is what is Iran's role in all this violence?

FAIR's action alert also pointed out that:

NPR's report sets a terrible precedent. Garrels described how she was "invited to an interrogation session of three renegade Sadr militiamen, apparently to show us how the movement is cleaning up its ranks." By airing the Sadr militia's torture-based claims on an influential U.S. radio network, NPR invited other violent groups to use torture to extract whatever statements are deemed useful to attract international press coverage.

However, Morning Edition has stuck by its original reporting. The November 1 broadcast of the show responded to the criticisms voiced by FAIR activists and others -- while dodging all of the main issues raised by critics.

As FAIR pointed out in an activism update issued today:

Garrels and Inskeep raised several points irrelevant to the issue -- stressing that journalists face serious danger reporting inside Iraq (which almost no one would challenge), and claiming that critics of this particular report would just rather not deal with the violent reality of that country.

Of course, no one has asked NPR to not report on the existence of torture in Iraq. Instead, FAIR asked that NPR not treat the coerced statements of obvious torture victims as credible sources of information.

On this point, Garrels still seems to disagree. When questioned by Inskeep, she did declare that she "had doubts" about the information, and that "the information that come from victims of torture is always questionable" -- something that was never made clear in the original report, a point Shepard made in her response to activists. Nonetheless, Garrels said she was persuaded by what she heard; when asked by Inskeep why she decided that "these were credible statements even if obtained by not-so-credible means," she replied that "the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured."

Garrels gave one example of such details -- an account of militia members posing as Sunnis and raping a Shiite girl. Why this would be considered evidence that the tortured were telling the truth is unclear; if Garrels had heard about the incident, it's likely that Baghdad militia members had as well, and could easily have induced their captives to "confess" to the crime.

Furthermore, the fact that militants are trying to inflame sectarian conflict in Iraq is well-known. The point of Garrels' story -- and the line of questioning that led to her providing the details of the torture confession -- was Iran's supposed involvement in such atrocities, a charge that fits in well with the United States' ongoing propaganda campaign against that country. Garrels gives no indication that she has any source for the explosive claims she relayed beyond the violently obtained testimony of torture victims. On this point, Shepard agreed, writing: "If there was news in Garrels' piece, it would be that NPR has definitive proof that Iran is behind recent violence. But that can't be confirmed on the say-so of torture victims in front of their captors."

Inskeep compared Garrels' reporting tactics to police work: "So you were working almost like a police officer in that sense and taking this information that might well be corrupted information, but trying to match it up with other facts that you knew from your long experience in Iraq." Of course, journalists are not police officers. But one would hope that most law enforcement officials would appreciate that information gleaned from torture (by a gang of outlaws, no less) was worthless -- not the starting point for a journalistic investigation.

Elsewhere in the segment Garrels stated that NPR was "extremely uncomfortable with the situation," and that "I think I made it clear I was as appalled as listeners were by the torture that had clearly occurred before I got there."

Being "appalled" by torture -- without really saying so -- while also finding it a useful tool for gathering information is a position not all that different from that of the torture advocates in the Bush administration. They, too, likely find it unpleasant, but deem it necessary for their own purposes. That NPR would adopt the same mindset is disappointing.