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Cheney Often Wrong, Seldom Doubted

Giving ex-VP a free ride in torture debate

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
29 May 2009

If Cheney were not a hawkish former vice president, journalists would not think of quoting him without citing his poor credibility and personal motives, let alone fail to confront him with conflicting evidence. So it's past the time when questions should be directed to Cheney about pro-torture claims; it's time to ask journalists why they are providing such respectful venues to such an untrustworthy figure.

"Dick Cheney seems to be everywhere," declared ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl (World News, 5/13/09), calling the formerly reclusive former vice president "the most visible Republican in the country these days."

Cheney has been hard to miss. Since leaving office in January, in addition to broad coverage of his May 21 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, in recent weeks he has appeared on CBS's Face the Nation (5/10/09), Fox's Your World With Neil Cavuto (5/12/09), Fox's Hannity (4/20/09, 4/21/09) and CNN's State of the Union (3/15/09). Moreover, Cheney's public profile has been amplified by heavy coverage in other media, which have widely quoted and run video clips of the CBS, Fox and CNN interviews.

"If I don't speak out," Cheney told Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer, "then the critics have free run, and there isn't anybody there on the other side to tell the truth." Among Cheney's "truths" are that torture and abusive treatment of detainees, what he calls "enhanced interrogation," have yielded information that stopped attacks on the U.S., and that in scuttling such Bush-era policies, President Barack Obama has put the U.S. in danger.

Cheney's media tour raises some troubling questions, including why, considering his history of false and misleading statements, journalists are still clamoring for his opinions. It's a question that Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, posed recently on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show (5/12/09):

This is the man who, after all, said we know with absolute certainty Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. We know he has an active nuclear program. We know he has contacts with Al-Qaeda. This is the man who has told more lies from a public pulpit than almost anyone else I know. Why does the media give him so much airtime?

Still, Cheney has been given a prominent platform to sway the torture debate away from the question of legality to the question of whether torture works. Torture is unconstitutional and forbidden under U.S. and international law; debating whether it is sometimes effective is like debating whether genocide can be effective in settling ethnic conflicts. Moreover, the most discussed form of abuse--waterboarding, or depriving a human being of oxygen by controlled drowning--was foremost among the crimes for which the U.S. convicted Japanese soldiers of torture following World War II (Washington Post, 11/4/07).

The efficacy of torture ought to be, at most, a subordinate issue to its legality and morality. But once journalists have allowed Cheney to make torture's efficacy a major theme in the media discussion, the very least they could do is confront him with the broad consensus of opinion among interrogation experts and historians: that non-coercive interrogation works far better than abusive interrogation.

"Empathetic interrogation works; coercive interrogation, i.e., torture, doesn’t work; the historical record is very clear on that point," University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy told FAIR's national radio show CounterSpin (2/23/07). McCoy--author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror--said that FBI counterintelligence officers have been using empathetic interrogation, where a human bond is established between interrogator and subject, for decades, noting the method came into common use following World War II, when the Marines discovered that by using it, they were able to obtain "complete order of battle intelligence," the hardest kind of intelligence to get, according to McCoy, within 24 hours.

Cheney’s media campaign began on CNN's State of the Union, when host John King helpfully asked him whether the use of "waterboarding or a black site" had "stopped another attempt" to attack the U.S. on the level of the 9/11 attacks.

Cheney responded:

John, I've seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected then that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs. It's still classified. I can't give you the details of it without violating classification, but I can say there were a great many of them.

But there are many reasons to doubt Cheney's claims about torture's effectiveness. "The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any 'specific imminent attacks,'" McClatchy's Mark Seibel and Warren P. Strobel reported (4/24/09). The inspector general's findings were bolstered last December, when Vanity Fair reporter David Rose asked FBI director Robert Mueller if "any attacks on America [had] been disrupted thanks to intelligence obtained through what the administration still calls 'enhanced techniques'?" Answered Mueller: "I don't believe that has been the case."

Giving added weight to McCoy's academic conclusions, Rose interviewed several active intelligence and interrogation experts who told him that abusive interrogations had not only been a bust, but had actually hindered intelligence gathering by making counterterrorism agents waste time on false leads. Rose forcefully challenged the Cheney claim that without harsh interrogation "our intelligence community believes that Al-Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland":

Really? In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: Not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots and unnecessary safety alerts--with Abu Zubaydah's case one of the most glaring examples.

Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading "information" that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

This doesn't preclude the possibility that Cheney may produce the odd document in which intelligence officers express enthusiasm about information that they obtained through torture. But his claims are rejected by top intelligence officials, counterterrorism agents in the field and leading experts on torture. Moreover, Cheney's involvement in a program that by any reasonable assessment systematically violated laws against torture and prisoner abuse puts him in jeopardy of future legal action, giving him a personal motive to divert the discussion away from legal issues.

As if Cheney's credibility were not already thoroughly demolished, emerging stories suggest his office instructed interrogators to torture some subjects, not for national security reasons, but to elicit statements linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda--statements which would help justify the Iraq War. According to some of these reports (e.g., McClatchy, 4/21/09), the torture obtained false statements making the Iraq/Al-Qaeda link, just some of many false statements and leads gained through the abusive treatment.

If Cheney were not a hawkish former vice president, journalists would not think of quoting him without citing his poor credibility and personal motives, let alone fail to confront him with conflicting evidence. So it's past the time when questions should be directed to Cheney about pro-torture claims; it's time to ask journalists why they are providing such respectful venues to such an untrustworthy figure.

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This story was published on May 30, 2009.