The Corner

Taking Their Word for It

Yesterday NPR did a segment on the torture memos in which correspondent Ari Shapiro talked to various human-rights lawyers — all Bush administration critics. It was a straight news piece. Here’s the part that caught my ear (all emphasis mine):

SHAPIRO: Abu Zubaida’s description of his treatment is classified. His lawyers have made it clear they believe that Zubaida was tortured before the Justice Department authorized harsh interrogations. So, Aziz Huq of University of Chicago Law School wants to know whether the CIA was operating under any kind of legal guidance for those first five months that they had Zubaida.

Professor AZIZ HUQ (University of Chicago Law School): All their verbal conversations in which lawyers from the Justice Department are saying yes, no, these measures are or are not okay. Those communications may never have been reduced to writing, or at least until August 2002. But do they exist?

SHAPIRO: We don’t know. In August of 2002, Justice Department identified the line between harsh interrogations and torture. But one memo shows the CIA crossed that line. Interrogators waterboarded people more than they were supposed to, and there are other instances of people torturing detainees, even using the Bush administration’s very limited definition of torture. Professor Greenberg tells the story of one detainee who was interviewed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Prof. GREENBERG: The detainee by the name of Bin Attash, who says that he was shackled with his hands above his head for a two week-long period, and the memos are specific about shackling – if you’re going to be in that position, being only that way for two hours, or your arms can be kept in a different position.

SHAPIRO: So, when it comes to waterboarding and shackling, it seems CIA interrogators went beyond the Justice Department’s definition of torture. But those are only narrow slices of information.

Me: Now, it is certainly possible that Bin Attash told the Red Cross the truth about being shackled for two weeks. Maybe it’s even probable. But how does Shapiro know? And why is he taking the lawyer’s interpretation at face value? We know that al Qaeda trains its members to lie about their treatment at the hands of the Americans. It’s in their training manuals. Again, Bin Attash may be telling the truth. But he’s also potentially in line for the death penalty and Shapiro is making a very, very serious charge here based on the testimony of a very biased witness. Is there some other corroboration for Attash’s version? Shapiro never tells us, and doesn’t seem to think he needs any.

Some might fairly see this as one more reason for further investigation into what happened, which is a fine argument to make. But absent such an investigation, shouldn’t NPR be a bit more skeptical?

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