Media failed to contrast Frist claim that "no responsible person" would outline impermissible interrogation techniques with McCain's statement doing just that

››› ››› ROB DIETZ

A Media Matters review of major media outlets found that only The Washington Post highlighted the major differences between remarks by Republican Sens. John McCain and Bill Frist on separate Sunday morning news shows on August 24. While McCain stated that "waterboarding and other extreme measures such as extreme deprivation -- sleep deprivation, hypothermia, and others" could be illegal under new rules for U.S. interrogations of terrorism suspects, Frist asserted that "no responsible person" is going to "comment on individual techniques" that would or would not be permitted under the new law, because doing so "helps the terrorists."

On the September 24 broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told Washington Post national political editor John Harris that a new bill that would create rules for U.S. interrogations of terrorism suspects would "outlaw certain procedures" that the CIA reportedly has used in the past; McCain then explained that those procedures could include "waterboarding and other extreme measures such as extreme deprivation -- sleep deprivation, hypothermia, and others." On the same morning, in an interview with host George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) claimed that "no responsible person" is going to "comment on individual techniques" that would or would not be permitted under the new law, because doing so "helps the terrorists." Yet a Media Matters for America review* found that among major media outlets, only The Washington Post highlighted Frist's implicit attack on those -- including McCain -- who comment on the effect of the bill "on individual techniques."

A September 25 Post article reported that while the "proposed legislation does not say what interrogators can do," McCain "named three measures that he said would no longer be allowed under a provision barring techniques that cause serious mental or physical suffering by U.S. detainees." While the Post incorrectly reported that McCain said those three interrogation techniques "would" no longer be allowed -- McCain actually said they "could" be outlawed by the agreement -- McCain did offer his interpretation of the bill's impact on individual interrogation techniques, something that, as the Post noted, Frist suggested "helps the terrorists." The article reported that "McCain's remarks were unusual because public officials involved in the lengthy public debate about U.S. interrogation practices have rarely made specific references to the CIA's actions." The Post then cited Frist's comments on This Week:

A Republican senator who played a leading role in drafting new rules for U.S. interrogations of terrorism suspects said yesterday that he believes a compromise bill embraced by party leaders and the White House will bar some of the most extreme techniques said to have been used by the CIA.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) named three measures that he said would no longer be allowed under a provision barring techniques that cause serious mental or physical suffering by U.S. detainees: extreme sleep deprivation, forced hypothermia and "waterboarding," which simulates drowning. He also said other "extreme measures" would be banned.

McCain's remarks were unusual because public officials involved in the lengthy public debate about U.S. interrogation practices have rarely made specific references to the CIA's actions. Instead, they have made general claims about the need for rough interrogations or a desire to stop abusive behavior.

[...]

"We cannot and will not comment on specific interrogation measures," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said, adding that the agency will act lawfully. The CIA has asserted unofficially that its most extreme measures were used on only a handful of detainees.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who wants to shepherd the detainee bill to congressional passage this week, also declined to give a specific reading of it yesterday. Asked repeatedly on ABC's "This Week" what the legislation would allow, Frist said, "I'm not going to comment on individual techniques," and he condemned doing so.

"No responsible person is going to come in and basically say, 'These are the 10 techniques we use and these are the 10 that are not used,' " said Frist, who is sometimes mentioned as a McCain rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. "It helps the terrorists."

But a Media Matters search found that only the Post noted these statements by both McCain and Frist. As Media Matters has repeatedly noted, media outlets are quick to mention instances of division within the Democratic Party.

From the September 24 edition of CBS' Face the Nation:

HARRIS: This whole debate turned on things that I think most citizens couldn't understand. You said you -- severe punishment, pain should not be inflicted, but serious pain can -- what can that possibly mean in concrete terms?

McCAIN: In concrete terms, it could mean that waterboarding and other extreme measures such as extreme deprivation -- sleep deprivation, hypothermia, and others would be not allowed.

HARRIS: That's what you say. What if the administration interprets it differently, as it is allowed to do under the provisions of this law? What if you disagree with the interpretation?

McCAIN: If we disagree with the interpretation, the fact is that those interpretations have to be published in the Federal Register. That's a document that's available to all Americans, including the press. And we in Congress, and the judiciary, if challenged, have the ability then to examine that interpretation and act legislatively. These are regulations the president would issue, we would be passing laws which trump regulations.

HARRIS: If you had confidence that those were -- tactics were disallowed, why didn't you get it in the -- in the actual law?

McCAIN: What we did, John, was we called -- outlawed certain procedures, including some of those that you might think would be natural-- murder, rape, etc. -- but also cruel and inhuman -- we included cruel and inhuman treatments, not as severe as torture but could still be considered a crime.

I'm confident that some of the abuses that were reportedly committed in the past will be prohibited in the future.

From the September 24 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

FRIST: Again let me -- the reason why I know, you think, and every time you ask it -- about waterboarding or other specific procedures, once --

STEPHANOPOULOS: But isn't that what's at issue here?

FRIST: No, but, no, it's defined. Right now it's very clear, and people who are doing the interrogation. If we give the playbook to the enemy, to the terrorists themselves, they'll simply train themselves against those techniques and be able to resist and therefore, nobody or I think no responsible person is going to come in and basically say, these are the 10 techniques we use and these are the 10 that are not used. I can say it is very clear, it meets international standard, it meets the Common Article 3 test. It meets the definition that we will be putting in the War Crimes Act here in about hopefully four or five days.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I'm going to take one more stab at this. Do you personally believe waterboarding is torture?

FRIST: I'm not going to comment. I'm not going to comment on individual techniques. It helps the terrorists, and the reason why it helps the terrorists who are going to come and try to assassinate us and people listening to us right now.

* Media Matters conducted a "News all" Nexis search for "John McCain and Bill Frist" on 9/24/06 and 9/25/06.

Network/Outlet
CBS, ABC
Person
George Stephanopoulos
Show/Publication
This Week, Face the Nation
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.