Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

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.]


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.]

Another Deadly Garment Fire in Bangladesh

A fire swept through the ironically-named Smart Export Garments factory in Bangladesh over the weekend, killing 7 workers, including 2 teenagers:

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Clothing from many European brands, including at least two brands owned by the Spanish apparel giant Inditex, was discovered Sunday inside a charred factory where a deadly weekend fire killed seven female workers, including several who were teenagers.

The blaze at the Smart Export Garments factory, which erupted Saturday afternoon in a densely populated area of Dhaka, the capital, is the latest tragedy for a Bangladeshi garment industry that is now the world’s second-biggest clothing exporter, trailing only China. Two months ago, a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed 112 workers, where jeans, lingerie and sweaters were made for retailers like Walmart and Sears.

The story is sadly familiar: The building was illegally constructed, lacking sufficient fire extinguishers and emergency exits. When the fire broke out, the young workers were horrified to discover that one of the fire exits was barred by a locked door. Smart Export was a subcontractor to major global brands, some of which pledge to maintain humane labor practices overseas, but it was unclear whether the SE factory had ever been audited for compliance.

[Photo credit: Unnamed seamstress in Bangladesh. kgbbristol, Creative Commons.]

Rachel Aviv on the Pedophile Predicament

Rachel Aviv of the New Yorker grapples with a very tough question: What should we do with men who have an intractable sexual attraction to children, but who have not yet abused a child? These are the guys who keep getting caught with child porn, but who have never touched a child, as far as anyone knows. Even self-proclaimed experts are very bad at predicting which child porn addicts will become full-blown child abusers. Some never do. Aviv reports that the current approach of indefinite civil commitment for these offenders coupled with dubious psychiatric treatments may be doing more harm than good.

#Sidney's Picks: Mississippi ME, Mumbai Attacks & ISI, Egg Donation

  • Your medical examiner might be a hack if…he records the weight of the victim’s ovaries and the victim is a man. Radley Balko continues his probe of the dubious ME who oversaw up to 90% of all autopsies in Mississippi, possibly sending innocent people to jail and letting the guilty go free.
  • For some women, egg donation is a job. Kaye Cain-Nielsen takes a hard look at the personal, political, and economic aspects of that work from her perspective as an applicant.

[Photo credit, Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

New Research Pinpoints Concussion Damage in Living Football Players

Historically, one of the biggest barriers to understanding the link between concussions and brain damage has been the fact that the damage can only be confirmed at autopsy. All that may be about to change:

Researchers at UCLA have announced a major finding that could save the lives of football players and other contact-sports athletes who’ve suffered countless traumatic brain injuries.

In the war against head trauma in football, one of the most vexing problems has been how to identify and treat a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is a form of brain damage that’s caused by multiple blows to the head and is believed to be the culprit in the high-profile suicides of former players such as Junior Seau, of the San Diego Chargers, and Dave Duerson, of the Chicago Bears. Until now, doctors haven’t been able to diagnose CTE in living people; they’ve had to dissect players’ brains postmortem to spot the telltale signs. [Popular Science]

The researchers used PET scans to visualize abnormal protein deposits in the brain, a hallmark of post-concussion syndrome.


[Photo credit: KJ Holiday, Creative Commons.]

Pentagon to Lift Ban on Women in Combat

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is expected to announce tomorrow that the ban on women serving in combat in the U.S. military will be lifted. Women have been serving in combat in all but name for years, but the new policy will open up the final 20% of active duty military positions to female recruits.

[Photo credit: DVIDSHUB, Creative Commons.]

An Antidote for the Imperial Presidency

After the pomp and circumstance of yesterday’s inauguration, it’s refreshing to remember that not all nations buy into the trappings of the imperial presidency. Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, a former guerrilla leader, still lives in his old house, drives a VW beetle, eschews servants, and gives 90% of his salary to the poor:

In a deliberate statement to this cattle-exporting nation of 3.3 million people, Mr. Mujica, 77, shunned the opulent Suárez y Reyes presidential mansion, with its staff of 42, remaining instead in the home where he and his wife have lived for years, on a plot of land where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets.

Visitors reach Mr. Mujica’s austere dwelling after driving down O’Higgins Road, past groves of lemon trees. His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800 — the value of the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle parked in his garage. He never wears a tie and donates about 90 percent of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor. [NYT]

It’s a powerful lesson in leadership that Mujica doesn’t feel he needs an opulent lifestyle to project authority. His power resides in his office, not in conspicuous consumption.

[Photo credit: jonisanowl, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Black Market Boner Pills; Bloomberg; and the Upper Big Branch Mine

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]