February 2013 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

February 2013

Autopsy: Teen Shot in the Back By Border Patrol

The U.S. Border Patrol claimed that 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was throwing rocks over a border fence at U.S. agents when he was shot last October, but the autopsy tells a different story.

Bob Ortega reports:

An autopsy report raises new questions about the death of a Mexican youth shot by at least one U.S. Border Patrol officer four months ago in Nogales.

The Border Patrol has maintained that Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, 16, was throwing rocks over the border fence at agents on the U.S. side when an agent fired across the international border the night of Oct. 10.

But entry and exit wounds suggest that all but one of as many as 11 bullets that struck the boy entered from behind, according to the report by two medical examiners working for the Sonora Attorney General’s Office.

Those bullets also entered the boy’s body at a lower point on his frame than they exited, the report found.

“The only way I can fathom that report is that he was lying on his face when he was hit,” said Luis Parra, an attorney representing the Elena Rodriguez family. [Arizona Republic]

Border Patrol claimed the boy was hurtling rocks clear over the fence, but the boy was at street level and the top of the fence was at least 43 feet above him, so if he was throwing rocks over the fence, he wasn’t lying down at the time.

Nineteen people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since January 2010.


Will Saletan's Weaselly Case for Torture

In an op/ed entitled “The Case for Torture,” Will Saletan writes that a recent panel discussion with former CIA officials “shook up [his] assumptions about the interrogation program” and “might shake up yours, too.” He doesn’t say what he thought before he watched Michael Hayden, Jose Rodriguez, and John Rizzo justify torture, but he goes on to sympathetically enumerate 13 arguments the panelists made. The invited inference is that these are the arguments that changed Saletan’s mind, and that the change was to make him more sympathetic to torture. 

Saletan shamelessly exploits the ambiguity between “the case some other people made for torture” and “the case I’m making for torture.” The defense that he’s just reporting what the panelists said is ridiculous. He’s not a stringer for the AP. This column appears in the op/ed section.

Saletan structures the column to give himself maximum cover. He starts out by saying that the AEI panel changed his mind, then he enumerates the panelists’ arguments, and in the final section he mouths some platitudes about how we should all be willing to reexamine our moral positions.

If it is reporting, it’s bad reporting. Saletan takes the claims of the most senior architects of torture at face value. These guys know more about the program than almost anyone, so we can’t afford to reflexively discount what they say about it, if we want to understand it, but let’s keep in mind that they are professional deceivers who, at best, skirted the law and at worst broke it. They see themselves as fighting an ongoing war and they know that what they say now will have implications for how that war goes. They have every reason to lie about what they did and how they did it.

Saletan blithely ignores basic critical questions like: If torture was so effective, why didn’t we catch Bin Laden during the height of the torture era? Why did it take over a decade?

He comes across as utterly credulous, producing lines like: “So, for what it’s worth, there were internal checks on the practice, at least because the CIA would be politically accountable for what its interrogators did.” Right. That’s why Jose Rodriguez deleted all those interrogation tapes.

For minimum journalistic due diligence, Saletan should have tried to square the claims of the panelists against other available evidence–like the testimonies of former detainees, their lawyers, defectors from the military and the intel communities, academic and journalistic experts, and so on. These sources have their own vested interests, but a responsible journalist tries to sort through the competing claims and acknowledges the limits of the available evidence. 

Saletan reveals a shaky grasp of the moral and empirical issues at stake. He’s impressed with the panelists’ bizarre claim that their brand of torture was somehow more acceptable because they used it to crush the detainees’ will to resist rather than to extract information through sheer physical agony. Practically speaking, torture is an ineffective means of extracting truth in the moment because the target will say anything to stop the pain. However, it’s an unproven assumption that utterly crushing a detainee’s spirit is a more reliable means to the truth than non-coercive interrogation. You might end up with a detainee who will say anything he thinks you want to hear because you’ve severed his grip on reality, or not say anything intelligible because you’ve pushed him into stupor, delirium, or intractible paranoia–as opposed to a detainee who will say anything to make you stop pouring water into his sinuses. To suggest that it’s more ethical to push an individual to psychological collapse makes a mockery of ethics.

Saletan resorts to pompous weasel words when he lacks the courage of his convictions. He’s too timid to come out and say that he approves of the “enhanced interrogation program” as it was used in the hunt for Bin Laden, but he keeps tipping his hand with the language he uses to describe the panelists’ arguments.

For example, he writes that the panelists “scorned the delusion that these methods hadn’t produced vital information.” By using the word “delusion” instead of “belief” or “claim,” Saletan implies that the pro-torture contingent is right without having to provide any evidence for their dubious claim that torture produced vital information that couldn’t have been gotten any other way. According to Saletan, the panelists “trashed the Obama-era conceit that we’re a better country because we’ve scrapped the interrogation program,” the word “conceit” implies that Obama is wrong or dissembling.

Saletan concludes by saying that “even when we decide that brutal interrogation methods are justified,” we should reexamine our prejudices so that we stop brutalizing people “when the reasons no longer suffice.” That’s when we decide, not if we decide, according to Saletan. That construction seems to allow for wrong decisions, but by adding “when the reasons no longer suffice,” Saletan is implying that sometimes the reasons for torture do suffice. If that’s what he really thinks, he should come out and say so instead of laundering his opinions through the pronouncements of AEI panelists.


[Photo credit: Truthout.org, Creative Commons.]


Feeding Us a Thin Blue Line: Why Cops Lie Under Oath

Michelle Alexander estimates that each year, thousands of innocent people plead guilty because they fear that a police officer will perjure himself to convict them. Alexander, author of the acclaimed book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues in the New York Times that police officers face institutional pressure to lie and do so terrifyingly often. Ordinary people facing trial have good reason to be afraid of police perjury. They know that judges and juries will reflexively believe a police officer over an accused drug offender. Unless perjury can be proven, there are no consequences for a officer who lies in court.

Increasing, senior law enforcement officials and judges are sounding the alarm about systematic police prevarication, Alexander writes:

The New York City Police Department is not exempt from this critique. In 2011, hundreds of drug cases were dismissed after several police officers were accused of mishandling evidence. That year, Justice Gustin L. Reichbach of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn condemned a widespread culture of lying and corruption in the department’s drug enforcement units. “I thought I was not naïve,” he said when announcing a guilty verdict involving a police detective who had planted crack cocaine on a pair of suspects. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”

Remarkably, New York City officers have been found to engage in patterns of deceit in cases involving charges as minor as trespass. In September it was reported that the Bronx district attorney’s office was so alarmed by police lying that it decided to stop prosecuting people who were stopped and arrested for trespassing at public housing projects, unless prosecutors first interviewed the arresting officer to ensure the arrest was actually warranted. [NYT]

In some quarters, policing has become a volume-driven, stats-oriented business where officers must prove their “productivity” by making a certin number of arrests. If a spurious arrest ends up in court, the officer will be locked into perjury. Civil forfeiture can create another perverse incentive to lie. In some jurisdictions, police departments get a cut of the assets of the people they bust for drug offenses.

Alexander argues persuasively that the testimony of cops should be viewed with as much skepticism as that of any other witness.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons.]



#Sidney's Picks: Art, "Redemption," Gerrymandering, a Stray Machine Gun

  • It’s a unregulated speculative free-for-all, but is it art? Yeah, it’s art.    
  • Co-directors co-directors Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill discuss their Academy Award-nominated documentary short “Redemption,” a portrait of the people who eke out a living collecting New York City’s recyclables.  
  • Yes, Virginia, ProPublica rounds up the best reporting on the hot topic of gerrymandering
  • Fearless Distribution: How a botched ATF front operation put a machine gun and $35,000 worth of stolen goods on the streets.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]