Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: When the Press Averted Its Eyes from Torture

Posted at 4:49 pm, January 27th, 2009
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Where was the outrage over the brutalizing of Mohammed al Qahtani? Time reported the abusive treatment of the reputed “twentieth hijacker” in its June 12, 2005 issue. The magazine somehow had obtained the classified logs of the Guantanamo detainee’s 50-day interrogation ordeal, and it described the log’s contents in detail — the protracted questioning of Qahtani, his sleep deprivation and humiliating and degrading treatment. Inexplicably, Time shied from calling it torture. Not once in its lengthy takeout did the magazine say, in its own voice, that Qahtani was tortured.

The reaction to Time’s expose was muted, perhaps because of the way the publication pulled its punches. In addition to refusing to use the T word, its namby-pamby conclusion came close to justifying Qhatani’s mistreatment: “…in the war on terrorism, the personal dignity of a fanatic trained for mass murder may be an inevitable casualty.”

Qhatani surfaced in the news again Jan. 14, 2009 in a front page story in the Washington Post by Bob Woodward, “Detainee Tortured, Says U.S. Official.” The official, Susan J. Crawford, the top Pentagon official in the Bush administration in charge of bringing detainees to trial, did not pussyfoot. She said flatly, “We tortured Qhatani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why,” she explained, “I did not refer the case” for prosecution. Shortly therafter, the incoming Obama administration banned the tactics used on Qhatani.

The Bush administration regarded itself at war after 9/11 and it adopted an ends-justify-the means mentality. The press did not enlist in that war, and it should have raised an immediate outcry over the revelations in the Qhatani logs. The public should not have had to wait more than three years to read a front-page story that a prisoner in U.S. custody was tortured.

The U.S. is signatory to the 1985 United Nations convention against torture, which bans all forms of it without ifs, ands or buts. One of these days, those responsible for Qahtani’s interrogation conceivably could be held to answer for their conduct. In that event, it would be embarrassing, to say the least, if Time editors who read the Qahtani interrogation logs are called to explain why they either did not realize, or were unwilling to admit, that they had in their possession an unmistakable account of torture.

One Response to “When the Press Averted Its Eyes from Torture”

  1. Thomas says:

    Time provided the details–just the facts–to its readers, and didn’t draw any legal or moral conclusions. There was nothing that prevented Time readers from reaching that conclusion–it isn’t something where a journalist is in a better position than the reader. So, what’s the complaint?

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