Watchdog Blog

Barry Sussman: A Nieman Watchdog Project—the Torture Record and the Press

Posted at 2:44 pm, April 20th, 2009
Barry Sussman Mug

The book is not yet closed on torture and other possible crimes ordered by American leaders in recent years. A lot is known but a lot isn’t. Exactly what happened in Bagram, in Guantanamo, in Abu Ghraib and in dark rendition prisons? How many people were whisked off and put away for no good reason? How many were tortured? What was done to them and what are their lives like now? Who ordered it, who did it and who knew about it? Did anyone try to stop it and, if so, what happened then? Surely some interrogators refused to take part?

As recounted by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books, former vice president Cheney continues to say at almost every opportunity that aggressive interrogation—what others call torture—delivered important information. Did it?

Aside from torture and abuse of prisoners, a lot is also unknown, or at least not spelled out publicly, on whether Cheney and President Bush knowingly lied to get support for the Iraq war in the first place, on illegal surveillance of citizens, on the firing of U.S. attorneys and on other allegations that, while pale compared to possible war crimes, are all very serious.

We want to help shine a light on these areas, and we’re asking journalists and others to do it with us, on this Web site.

The years 2001 through 2008 were among the most divisive and bitter in the nation’s history. Not yet gone from the scene, Cheney and others continue practicing a politics of fear, putting a revisionist twist on events even as they occur.

The need to look back is compelling on the grounds that if war crimes were committed in the name of the American people, there has to be justice, both for the victims and the perpetrators. Also, and importantly, on the grounds that the more that is known, the less likely it is that a future president and vice president will see themselves so removed from constraints, so above the law.

Last December, in Harper’s, Scott Horton wrote that “reasserting the rule of law is no simple matter. A new administration may—or may not—bring an end to open torture in the United States, but it will not bring an end to our knowledge and acceptance of what has already taken place. If the people wish to maintain sovereignty, they must also reclaim responsibility for the actions taken in their name. As of yet, they have not. Pursuing the Bush Administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture; it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government.”

On April 16th, the government released Justice Department memos from the Bush era that attempted to provide a legal basis for torture. The immediate reaction from the press and Capitol Hill was for the most part vehement and angry—but then, there’s a history of vehemence and anger subsiding within a few days’ or weeks’ news cycles. Reporters and editors shouldn’t let that happen this time.

It’s not up to the press to decide whether there will be a truth commission, an independent prosecutor, a criminal investigation or any other type of government probe. But journalists can keep doing something they are very good at, and that is to solidly, thoroughly find and lay out the facts, regardless of where they lead, and refuse to let an issue of great importance just fade away or disappear altogether.

Starting today, with an introductory piece by Dan Froomkin and an interview with Roy Gutman, the McClatchy Newspapers foreign editor, we will be running occasional articles regarding possible war crimes and other serious offenses of the Bush administration. We’re asking journalists and others to take part, and we have several pieces already in hand. We’re interested in your ideas, too.

It’s up to the public, the Obama administration and Congress to decide what happens next.

One Response to “A Nieman Watchdog Project—the Torture Record and the Press”

  1. sailorflat says:

    Of course there should be a special prosecuter and a full investigation into all the criminal acts of the BushCo. Administration. To just say, “let’s look forward, not backward” simply doesn’t cut it. These acts were done in OUR name and the lies about the reasons for the Iraq War are truly criminal. That Bush calls himself a Christian speaks absolutely mountains of information of how organzied religion has created and caused the problems in the world’s history. I have read the Holy Bible, King James Version and I found it racist, sexist and the most violent historical documentation of our society. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

    Attorney General Eric Holder must appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the lies used to pre-emptively attack a sovereign nation. Just the stuff that has already come out is so very indicative of war criminals. The supposed “Surge” was another fabrication of the BushCo. war criminals. Iraq has basically been destoyed by the pre-emptive attack. Individuals that are that are historically ignorant of Mesopotamia went in there with lies about uranium, weapons of mass(?) destruction and “we’re better than you are attitude to cheaply attack a country who we have destroyed their society . High crimes were definitely committed from 2001 to 2008 and if there is no documentation of those crimes, then we’re just another punk dictatorship.

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