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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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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:, Creative Commons.]



The military's SERE program was designed to help teach its personnel how to resist torture.  The tactics employed were the ones used by the North Koreans to extract "confessions" of war crimes via their infamous "brainwashing" techniques, coupled with the interrogation methods North Vietnamese interrogators employed against captured military personnel, such as John McCain.When the North Vietnamese employed what was then called torture (because it was done TO Americans) and is called "harsh interrogation tactics" (when Americans do it) - they asked John McCain for the names of the other pilots in his squadron.  Instead, he famously named the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers.The North Vietnamese interrogators probably thought the information revealed by John McCain was highly valuable.  Instead, it was a distraction.  One wonders how many CIA resources were wasted tracking down the Al Qaeda version of the Green Bay Packers offensive line - or other disinformation told by prisoners seeking to stop the pain for a while.  One also wonders whether the folks that ran this ridiculous program (including the civilian contractors wih profitable cost-plus contracts) will ever admit how badly they were fooled.

If Saletan had been around in the '40s, I'm sure he would have been "reporting" from Bund meetings about how it was currently "necessary" to stuff Jews into ovens in Germany, but that it would stop as soon as "the reasons no longer suffice". What a despicable turd.

Thank you.So much of what I needed to shout when reading Saletan.I cannot see any difference between "we tortured them for information" and "we tortured them to break them so thoroughly that we could get information at our leisure."And I come up short when hearing this "Did torture help us get Bin Laden" question. He wasn't worth it.

This is a very strong critique of the article. I wish more Journos took the care Beyerstein does in utilizing logic and language with such care.

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.That's it exactly. Maybe he's angling for a post at AEI. Anyway, if anyone wants to subject their own selves to torture, here's the transcript of the forum: 

There is and can be no effective argument against torture to sociopaths. If human beings have no inherent dignity or rights in someone's mind, why is torture inherently bad? And if there is no reason for them to consider it bad, then an 'it doesn't work' argument is weak sauce: even if we ignore the crowd of people yelling that it does work, it certainly feels intutively as if it should, so why not just keep trying it until we figure out how to make it work?What we need to do is try to figure out why so many prominent figures in our government and press are a very specific type of sociopath, and learn how to stop fostering this. (Either by no longer creating that type of sociopath, or no longer encourage it in government.) Personally, I am not optimistic.

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