I’m surprised that no one has picked up on the article by Dana Priest on the front page in Monday’s Washington Post, entitled “Jet is an Open Secret in Terror War.” Dana Priest is a pretty big star in the Post’s firmament, and gets to write lots of stories that the editors consider important. But this one is very peculiar, because most of the ink is spilled on a single CIA operation: the use of a Gulfstream aircraft to transport suspected terrorists and accomplices to places where they are interrogated and/or arrested.
We learn a lot about the plane, including its tail number, the company that owns it, the names (which Priest reasonably infers are “cover” names) of the company’s executives, and several sightings of the plane, from Pakistan and Cairo to Stockholm, Riyadh, Rabat, and of course Washington.
Amidst all these data, Priest raises a serious issue, namely whether the terrorists and their pals were brought to foreign countries in order to be subjected to far harsher interrogations–perhaps including torture–than could be used here. In that connection, she quotes Martin Sklar of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, who claims that we are in violation of the U.N.’s Convention on Torture, and she trots out “Anonymous,” a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, who slams his previous employers, saying they just do what they’re told.
If the article were all about this issue, one could understand its presence on the front page, but the rest of it is all about the plane, its travels, and its owners. It’s pure voyeurism and expose, and one has to ask, “Why?” To be sure, there is a lot of interest in the CIA, and even a book of recipes by CIA kitchen personnel would attract some attention, but this article seems to me to be the sort of thing that a serious news organization should stay away from. It is all too easy to read this and conclude that the Post is outing CIA operations and personnel just for the fun of it. Or because they hope it will encourage somebody to do something really newsworthy.
What public interest is advanced by all this detail? None I can think of. Are there any other consequences of such a story? You bet: People who wish us ill, including officials and agents of hostile intelligence services, now have a target, and they have some names (phony though they may be) to put into their databases, thereby placing those people at risk of exposure or worse. Apparently Priest piggybacked on an earlier story in the Boston Globe, and her own article just appeared in The Australian, so people all over the world can now watch for the Gulfstream and listen for the names.
At a minimum, this story will cost money (the CIA might well decide to cash in the Gulfstream and use a different aircraft). At worst, some people will be damaged, embarrassed, physically hurt, or subjected to gratuitous harassment. The unlucky lawyer who filed the incorporation papers for the company that owns the plane told the Globe, “I’m not at liberty to discuss the affairs of the client business, mainly for reasons I don’t know.” Now there’s a really important statement for America’s readers. The implication couldn’t be clearer: This guy’s a bum, doing something he shouldn’t.
I think the Post showed lousy news judgment on this story, and I wonder whether anyone at CIA made that argument to the editors. After all, some American journalists are now facing jail because the name of a covert agent was revealed; is it so different from this case, where cover names are exposed? I wish Dana Priest had devoted her considerable talents to the pony buried in the mountain of aeronautical detail, the torture issue. (I have long questioned both the morality and the utility of torture, because a normal person under torture will say most anything to stop the pain.) If she decides to do that, I hope she writes the really hard story: torture in its many forms, all over the world: U.N. officials’ torturing of little African girls; Iranians’ torturing of young bloggers; Saddam’s torturing of his own people. I’ll even give her some research assistance, because the Post knows far more about it than it has let its readers know.
Some time ago, the Post was given tapes of public torture sessions in Baghdad before the liberation of Iraq. It showed tongues being cut out, hands and arms cut off, legs broken, and decapitations. So far as I know, the Post only mentioned it once, and then only to “blame” advocates of Operation Iraqi Freedom for trying to counter bad news from Abu Ghraib. If the Post were really concerned about having a fully informed readership, it could have posted the tapes on its website. We had some of that material–not nearly as much as the Post did–and posted it at AEI.