Politics & Policy

The Media’S False Modesty

Take some credit for America's reputation!

You gotta admire the liberal media’s modesty. For the last three years, it has been promoting the story that the Bush administration has a policy of torturing terror detainees. Now, such mouthpieces of the anti-administration Left as the New York Times are calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility on the ground that its reputation for prisoner abuse is jeopardizing the war on terror. Take some credit, guys! It may be true that Guantanamo Bay has become synonymous with lawlessness throughout vast swathes of the Western and Muslim worlds. But no one is more responsible for that reputation than the New York Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and other mainstream media outlets, which have never encountered a prisoner-abuse story that they didn’t find credible and worthy of broadcast.

This recent campaign for shuttering Guantanamo, which has been joined by former president Jimmy Carter and Senator Joe Biden, began with a column by New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman on May 27, “Just Shut It Down.” Friedman claimed that it was “obvious” that the “abuse at Guantanamo and with the whole U.S. military prison system . . . is out of control.” His evidence? Headlines in Western newspapers about abuse and the claim that “over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody.” “How is it that” such deaths occurred? he asks sarcastically. “Heart attacks?”

Well, no, most of those deaths were in military self-defense or were accidental, and most occurred at the point of capture–razor close to the heat of battle, if technically considered “in detention.” I don’t know where Friedman comes up with his “over 100″ number. As of March 16, the Army was reporting 68 detainee deaths. Of those, 24 were confirmed or suspected criminal homicides, but again, a full 15 of those homicides occurred at point of capture in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do 24 criminal homicides out of the over 50,000 detainees taken as of September 2004 represent a criminal abuse of power? How many enemy soldiers died at the hands of their captors in previous wars? What proportion of al Qaeda captives survive detention? Friedman doesn’t bother to ask.

Friedman also cites a headline in the May 8 London Observer: “An American Soldier has revealed shocking new details of abuse and sexual torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay” in proof of the rampant violence against Muslim detainees. The reference is to Inside the Wire by Eric Saar, an Army sergeant who worked as a translator at Guantanamo for six months. The centerpiece of the book is Saar’s one story of prisoner abuse, already much recounted: A female interrogator makes sexual advances to a resistant detainee in the hope of “separating him from his God” and getting him to talk. Never revealed in the media reports on the book, nor indeed in Saar’s own interviews on the subject, is that the culmination of the female interrogator’s gambit–pretending to smear menstrual blood (in fact red ink) on the detainee–was suggested by a devout Muslim linguist working at Guantanamo at the time. So much for uniquely American disrespect for Muslim customs.

Also left out of the reporting on the incident is that the interrogator was disciplined for a patent violation of interrogation rules. Nor did The Observer and its confreres in the media run a story off of Saar’s book with the headline: “An American Soldier has revealed shocking new details of terrorist intentions at Guantanamo Bay.” The following exchange between Saar and detainee Mustapha, with whom Saar had been conducting long heartfelt conversations about religion, rather calls out for attention, however. Saar, showing a reverse Stockholm syndrome, had asked the Syrian Mustapha for Mustapha’s opinion of him. Mustapha replies coolly: “You are not how I thought an American man or soldier would be. You believe in God and you love your family. In a way I respect you. But . . . you are not a Muslim. In fact, you are an enemy of the true God. If I were not in this cell I would have to kill you.”

Within a week, the Times editorialists had seized on Friedman’s column and issued their own call to shut down Guantanamo. Rationale? Each detention center that the U.S. operates “has produced its own stories of abuse, torture and criminal homicide.” Well, yes they have. The Koran-down-the-toilet story, for example. How many front-page stories on that fictive incident did the Times put out? I stopped counting at about five, when, after the original story had been completely discredited, the Times put on its front-page a story about “other allegations” of Koran mistreatment. More front-page stories about Koran abuse followed. It turns out that there have been five confirmed cases of mistreatment, only three deliberate, out of an elaborate system of Koran respect that includes special nets to hold the books and careful efforts to have only Muslims touch them. Do al Qaeda detainees get Bibles or Korans before they are beheaded? Doubtful.

Georgetown law professor David Cole, one of the most strident administration critics, added his voice to the call to close Guantanamo on Public Radio International’s To the Point on June 8. Cole shed crocodile tears about how America’s bad reputation was hurting our chances in the terror fight. This is the same Cole who never passes up an opportunity to allege that the U.S. is engaged in rampant discrimination and lawless “sweeps” against Muslim immigrants, even though an insignificant proportion of the Muslim population in the U.S. has had any contact with law enforcement since 9/11.

When the administration asserts that it has never had a policy of abuse–when it asserts that the assaults at Abu Ghraib were the result of criminal guards acting wholly in violation of prison rules–the liberal media and left-wing advocacy groups are sure they are hearing a lie. Too bad they don’t bring such skepticism to reports of abuse by prisoners who have been trained to exploit American human-rights concerns and who know that the only place in the world where such allegations will be seriously worried over and investigated is in the land of the infidel.

Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

CORRECTION: This piece originally identified To the Point as a National Public Radio program. It is distributed by Public Radio International.


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