Torture | Media Matters for America


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  • Torture fan Sean Hannity still hasn't been waterboarded like he promised

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Gina Haspel’s nomination to be director of the CIA has reinvigorated the long-simmering controversy over the George W. Bush administration’s decision to turn America into a torture state. Haspel, who oversaw the torture of one detainee at a CIA black site in 2002 and later engineered the destruction of videotaped evidence of torture, is being held up as a hero by conservative pundits who celebrate her “toughness.”

    One of those pundits, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, has spent the past week defending Haspel and advocating for the torture techniques she implemented. “We can't have evil exist in this world without doing something to counter it,” he said on his March 13 show. “And if it means that terrorists caught on the battlefield are forced to answer questions, well, sadly that’s what you have to do because you are dealing with evil.”

    This line of argument resurrects an issue related to the torture controversy that has remained conspicuously unresolved for nearly a decade: Sean Hannity promised to be waterboarded but still hasn’t done it.

    Hannity has long been an advocate for torture, and one of his more curious pro-torture strategies is to dismiss its unpleasantness while simultaneously lauding its effectiveness. Back in April 2009, while speaking to actor Charles Grodin on his Fox News show, Hannity said: “Is it really so bad to dunk a terrorist's head in water and make him talk? Tell me what's wrong with that.” Later in the program, the two had this exchange:

    CHARLES GRODIN: Have you ever been waterboarded?

    SEAN HANNITY (HOST): No, but Ollie North has and I've talked to him about it.

    GRODIN: And how -- would you consent to be waterboarded?

    HANNITY: Yes.

    GRODIN: So we could get the truth out of you?

    HANNITY: Yes. Sure.

    GRODIN: We can waterboard you?

    HANNITY: Sure.

    GRODIN: Are you busy on Sunday?

    HANNITY: I'll do it for charity. I'll let you do it.

    GRODIN: I wouldn't do it.

    HANNITY: I'll do it for the troops' families.

    That was almost nine years ago, and Hannity still has not been waterboarded, but not for lack of trying. Keith Olbermann, then an MSNBC host, tried to get Hannity to live up to his promise by pledging $1,000 to charity for every second of torture Hannity could endure. Four years after his initial promise, ThinkProgress called into his radio show to ask when he was going to follow through, and Hannity snapped at the reporter for being rude. “Here I am, nice enough to bring you on the program and give you an opportunity to give your pretty radical left-wing point of view,” he said, “and that’s kind of -- you know what -- the way you treat me.”

    And now here we are in the year 2018 and Hannity is still noticeably unwaterboarded and still hiding behind the fact that his buddy Oliver North knows what it’s like. “Have you been waterboarded in your life, in your career in the military as a marine that served his country and have a Purple Heart or two,” Hannity asked North on his March 15 show. North said yes he had as part of SERE training, a program soldiers go through to learn how to resist -- you guessed it -- torture. “I waterboarded at least 150 people,” North said, “some of whom I'm sure are right now wondering what the heck is going on because it was all legal before.”

    Look, Sean, one of the sad consequences of the utter lack of torture accountability and your status as a premier advocate of state-sponsored barbarism is that the torture issue isn’t going away, which means this whole “I volunteered to be waterboarded” issue isn’t going away -- that is, until you get waterboarded. No one is saying you’re a coward, Sean. In no way am I implying that the reason you haven’t followed through on your nine-year-old promise to be waterboarded for charity is that behind the bravado lurks a secret terror of what the “dunking” entails.

    Quite the contrary, in fact. I think your promise to volunteer to put yourself through this physically debilitating and psychologically horrifying torture technique is the height of manliness. A total alpha move. And the fact that you’re going to do it for the troops is just patriotic icing on the testosterone cupcake.

  • Gina Haspel, John Brennan, and CIA “accountability”

    John Brennan vouched for Donald Trump's pick to head the CIA despite her direct involvement in torture

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Editor’s note: ProPublica has published a major correction to its February 22, 2017, article -- cited in the piece below -- reporting that Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of two detainees at a “black site” prison in Thailand in 2002. The correction states that “Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of [Abu] Zubaydah ended,” though additional reporting by The New York Times indicates “she was in charge when [Abd al-Rahim] al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times.”

    President Donald Trump yanked the rip cord on an especially haphazard personnel change this morning, firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, designating CIA director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s replacement, and naming deputy CIA director Gina Haspel as Pompeo’s successor. It’s a wild reshuffling of top national security aides and most of the media attention is being sucked up by the drama surrounding Tillerson’s sacking (he reportedly learned he was fired when Trump tweeted about it).

    The elevation of Haspel to CIA director, however, is an important story that gets to one of the most critical policy failures of the last 15 years: the brutal CIA torture program launched by George W. Bush and the utter lack of genuine accountability for the people who conceived and implemented it.

    One of those people is Gina Haspel, who (as reported by The New York Times last February when she was named deputy CIA director) “oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects and later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Thailand.” One of those detainees, Abu Zubaydah, was subjected to especially savage treatment -- he was waterboarded 83 times and nearly drowned after he was rendered “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” (Zubaydah also lost his left eye under circumstances that the CIA has yet to fully explain.) At the time, the government accused Zubaydah of being a senior Al Qaeda operative. He wasn’t.

    As ProPublica reported last year, the tapes of those torture sessions became a problem for the CIA “when questions began to swirl about the Bush administration’s use of the ‘black sites,’ and program of ‘enhanced interrogation,’” so Haspel worked to make them disappear. She “drafted an order to destroy the evidence” that was signed by her superior, and 92 tapes were fed “into a giant shredder.”

    As the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the torture program makes clear, the CIA enacted its “coercive interrogation” program in Thailand without “a plan for the eventual disposition of its detainees,” without any meaningful consultation on how to conduct interrogations, and without any real internal deliberation on how to proceed. Haspel was a key figure in both the execution of this slipshod torture program and the subsequent efforts to cover it up, and Trump wants to reward her with the top post at the CIA.

    If you’re thinking that all that torture history should be an impediment to Haspel’s ascension, you’d be correct in theory, but in practice that probably won’t happen. When it comes to torture, the CIA just isn’t held to any real standard of accountability. Former CIA director and current MSNBC contributor John Brennan helped demonstrate as much when he appeared this morning on the cable channel to discuss Haspel’s nomination.

    “She has a wealth of experience and background,” Brennan said of Haspel, and “she has tremendous respect within the ranks.” Referring obliquely to the torture program, Brennan said she "was involved in a very, very controversial program” but “has tried to carry out her duties at CIA to the best of her ability, even when the CIA was asked to do some very difficult things in very challenging times.” Ultimately, Brennan concluded, Haspel “deserves the chance to take the helm at CIA.” He predicted the Senate would confirm her.

    In the context of the torture debate, Brennan’s vouching for Haspel despite her involvement with the torture program is meaningful. Brennan actually tried to promote Haspel to a senior post within the CIA early on in his tenure, but he changed course when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) personally intervened and, according to The Washington Post, “express[ed] concern that someone so closely linked to the [torture] program might lead the agency’s spying service.” Brennan was concerned enough back then to keep Haspel out of the CIA’s leadership, but now he’s fine with her taking on the top job at the agency.

    Brennan himself is a beneficiary of the lax-to-nonexistent accountability standards for the CIA when it comes to the question of torture. In 2014, the CIA -- then under Brennan’s direction -- admitted that officers had spied on Senate staffers who were working on the then-pending release of the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report. Brennan had categorically denied that any spying had taken place. When that was proven false, Brennan apologized and personally appointed a five-member committee to investigate. That committee recommended that no disciplinary action be taken for spying on the U.S. Senate. Brennan continued on in his job and retained the “confidence” of President Barack Obama.

    That’s how “accountability” works for the CIA and the rest of the intelligence apparatus. You always get the maximum benefit of the doubt and are eligible for limitless mulligans because everything you do -- no matter how blatantly illegal or immoral -- is done in the name of “national security.” John Brennan sent a signal to everyone in D.C. that Gina Haspel’s direct involvement in torturing detainees and the ensuing cover-up shouldn’t derail her ascent to the directorship of the CIA, and we shouldn’t be surprised if and when the Senate heeds his counsel.

  • Joe Scarborough Shut Down By Sen. McCain After Claiming Sleep Deprivation Isn’t Torture

    Scarborough: “I See Absolutely No Problem About Doing A Study On 'Enhanced Interrogation' Techniques"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    On the January 25 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough complained that “suddenly” so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” became “abhorrent” after public outcry over abuses during the George W. Bush administration. After it was reported that President Trump may sign an executive order that would “order a review of the Army Field Manual to determine whether to use certain enhanced interrogation techniques” again, Scarborough said that he “see[s] absolutely no problem about doing a study on enhanced interrogation techniques.” He added later in the segment that “there has been such a broad brush put across this entire topic of, quote, ‘torture.’ Suddenly sleep deprivation is torture.”

    In the final hour of his show, Scarborough, who previously told a former naval intelligence official that he was wrong in saying that waterboarding doesn’t work, asked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who experienced torture, to “define torture,” inquiring whether “sleep deprivation and other techniques like that” in fact “fit” McCain’s personal “definition of torture.” McCain shut Scarborough down, stating unequivocally that “extreme sleep deprivation is certainly not allowed and, again, it is very clear and laid out” in both the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual:

    SCAROROUGH: Can you define torture? Because -- I was saying this morning, we had this discussion at 6 o'clock -- there has been a broad brush, and everything from waterboarding all the way back to sleep deprivation, basically anything outside the Army Field Manual. And certainly the definition of torture became very expansive post-2005, 2006. What's your definition of torture, and does sleep deprivation fit -- and other techniques like that -- does that fit in your definition of torture?

    SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Yeah, obviously some of it depends on the extent of it, but I can tell you it's the Geneva Conventions for the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Joe, after World War II, we tried and convicted and hung Japanese who had -- and one of the charges against them was waterboarding. And soo look, there is no doubt, just look at the Geneva Conventions, which we are signatories to, for treatment of prisoners, and you will see that it's very well laid out there, and waterboarding is one of those that is prohibited. And I'm entertained, and sometimes frustrated, when I have members of the Senate say, oh, well, I don't think waterboarding is that bad. It's one thing to do it in practice in one of our escape innovation schools. It's something else when it's real.

    SCARBOROUGH: I understand, that's why I'm asking you -- we understand waterboarding -- General Mattis and I think Mike Pompeo, others, said they would not follow through with orders on that. I'm asking on the other side of the spectrum, though, pushing back towards the Army Field Manual for things like sleep deprivation.

    MCCAIN: Well, again, it's laid out in the Army Field Manual, which is guided by the Geneva Conventions. Extreme sleep deprivation is certainly not allowed and, again, it is very clear and laid out, and I'd be glad to send it to you. There's a bright line.

    SCARBOROUGH: That would be awfully kind of you. I'd be sure to read it, or I'll just look at it on the internet.

  • Right-Wing Media Abandon Facts To Support Trump’s Call For Waterboarding

    ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    Several right-wing media figures defended presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s reiterated call for waterboarding and “much worse” techniques to combat terror after terrorists carried out an attack on Istanbul’s largest airport. Journalists and others well-versed in national security, terrorism, and interrogation tactics have called waterboarding ineffective and chided Trump for proposing we “stoop to [terrorists’] level” of using brutal tactics.

  • John McCain Speaks Out Against Torture As Fox News Praises Trump For Waterboarding Comments

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW LAWRENCE

    Senator John McCain (R-AZ), former POW and survivor of torture, denounced the use of torture as ineffective and counterproductive after Donald Trump advocated waterboarding and “much worse” to fight terrorism. Fox News figures praised Trump’s advocacy of illegal interrogation and pushed for President Obama to adopt similar strategies.

    During a June 28 campaign rally at Ohio University Eastern Campus, Trump called for the United States to “fight so viciously and violently” against terrorists and “fight fire with fire.” Trump also advocated for the use of waterboarding and “much worse” against enemy combatants.

    Trump had previously advocated for techniques “tougher than waterboarding” as well as proposing the killing of innocent family members of enemy combatants. In May, Trump attempted to walk back those comments by acknowledging “that the United States is bound by laws and treaties,” but has since returned to proposing policy that he once recognized would force a “military officer to disobey the law.”  

    Fox News hosts largely supported Trump’s plans for the illegal techniques. Fox’s Peter Hegseth argued that the United States “can maintain our values while still ruthlessly going after ISIS,” and Fox host Eric Bolling downplayed torture, saying “God forbid we pour water on terrorists’ faces.”

    But on June 29, Senator McCain joined Fox’s On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, where host Greta Van Susteren asked McCain about Trump’s advocacy for torture. McCain pointed out that numerous military leaders have said “that it not only doesn’t work, but it is counter-productive because you get bad information.” Furthermore, McCain argued that “it’s about us, not about them,” making the point that torturing enemy combatants is a contradiction of American values:



    On October 26, 1967, McCain, then a Navy pilot, was shot down over Vietnam, and captured by the North Vietnamese. McCain was subjected to torture by his captors, explaining that, he “was beaten every two or three hours by different guards,” and after four days agreed to write a confession. 

  • Are Rush Limbaugh And Fox News Still Laughing About Torture?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Remember when Fox News contributor Sarah Palin joked about torture?

    Last spring, Palin appeared before an NRA convention crowd and laughed about how liberals supposedly coddle America's mortal adversaries. "Oh, but you can't offend them, can't make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen," said Palin. "Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,"  The NRA audience roared with approval, but even some conservative commentators who saw the tape of Palin's wisecrack took offense, upset that she had linked bodily torture with a Christian sacrament. ("It's disgusting.")

    Palin, of course, hardly stands alone among conservative media commentators who have spent years not only downplaying the grievous practice of torture adopted by the Bush administration, but who have routinely made light of the cruel tactic previously banned by the United States.  

    "If you look at what we are calling torture, you have to laugh," Rush Limbaugh once announced, and claimed "if somebody can be water-tortured six times a day, then it isn't torture." At the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Limbaugh routinely mocked the claims of prisoner abuse, which were confirmed by horrific photographs: "Here we have these pictures of homoeroticism that look like standard good old American pornography, the Britney Spears or Madonna concerts or whatever." Limbaugh dismissed the prison torture as a "fraternity prank," suggesting "Maybe the people who executed this pulled off a brilliant maneuver. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got physically injured."

    Meanwhile, Fox News' Eric Bolling once joked that the types of interrogation techniques being described in the press ("loud music, sleep deprivation, barking dogs"), sounded like "a typical weekend at my house with my twelve-year old son."

    Then-Fox News host Glenn Beck greeted 2009 news of CIA interrogation revelations with fake sobs, after noting that "[c]ritics of the Bush-approved [interrogation] methods have called them torture." And that same year, Sean Hannity laughed on the air while agreeing to be waterboarded to raise money for charity. (Two thousand days later, Hannity still hasn't done it.)

    That longstanding conservative attempt to make light of torture (who does that?) is now even harder to justify in light of the  disturbing details contained in the new Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's five-years-in-the-making report on the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and interrogation program. (The report is told mostly via internal CIA communications.)

    Aside from what the report claimed were widespread efforts by the CIA to cover-up its practice from Congressional oversight and even from the rest of the Bush administration, and that the information extracted through torture was at times fabricated and never considered good enough to thwart an imminent terror plot or help apprehend sought-after terrorists, the key take-away remains the level of brutality  inflicted as part of a systemic U.S. policy.