I write to you in regard to an article by Brian Stelter that appeared in the New York Times on April 28, 2009, which contains a quote I provided to Mr. Stelter in an interview last week. The article is here.
I will not summarize the article here, other than to state that it focuses on a television interview given to ABC News' Brian Ross, by a former CIA analyst named John Kiriakou. In the interview, Mr. Kiriakou stated that the CIA waterboarded a detainee, Abu Zubaydah, only once, for approximately 30 to 35 seconds, and that the single waterboarding session caused him to begin cooperating with CIA interrogators.
As it now widely known, this claim has been refuted by now-released Bush administration documents (along with a number of other accounts in media stories about CIA interrogations — a point I will return to below). Mr. Zubaydah was waterboarded over 80 times.
Citing the new information rebutting Mr. Kirakou's claims, Mr. Stelter's article is critical of ABC News, suggesting in various ways that the network bears responsibility for the fact that Mr. Kiriakou's account led some observers to conclude that CIA interrogation was not as bad as critics had before suggested.
Placing blame on ABC News is unfair and nonsensical, and for the New York Times in particular it is hypocritical.
A few points to consider:
First, Mr. Kiriakou's account given on ABC News was hardly the first time a media company has quoted CIA officials providing rosier-than-reality accounts of interrogations.
Similar claims were reported at earlier times in accounts in the Time, Newsweek, and in various published books by Bob Woodward, Ronald Suskind, and the New York Times' own James Risen. That is not to denigrate the fine work of these journalists, who, like Brian Ross, have often had to cite accounts from government officials only to find out later that the accounts are misleading or false. Rather, I raise the point to remind readers that it is not unusual for journalists to be misled by government officials. Nor is it unusual that misleading accounts end up being published by media companies. The New York Times has suffered its own share of these problems. "CIA Source Misleads Media Company" is akin to "Dog Bites Man."
Second, for the Times in particular to focus on the Kiriakou story is downright nutty. If it is a crime to cite uncritically Mr. Kiriakou's accounts of Abu Zubaydah's supposed 30-second waterboarding, then the Times is just as guilty as ABC News.
This is because the New York Times itself interviewed and cited Mr. Kiriakou in a June 2008 article by Scott Shane about CIA interrogations, which focused on CIA analyst and interrogator Deuce Martinez — a point Mr. Stelter didn't mention. It was highly misleading and inaccurate to mention, as Mr. Stelter did in his article today, a still earlier December 2007 Times article about the Kiriakou ABC interview, in which the Times "described his comments to ABC and added a quotation from Mr. Kiriakou," . . . without mentioning the later June 2008 article by Mr. Shane, in which Kiriakou's "waterboarding-for-30-seconds" account is actually recounted.
Incidentally, it should be noted that Mr. Shane is cited as a contributor at the end of Mr. Stelter's article today.
Here is the key part of what was written in that June 2008 New York Times article:
In a December interview with the Times, before being cautioned by the C.I.A. not to discuss classified matters, Mr. Kiriakou, who was not present for the waterboarding but read the resulting intelligence reports, said he had been told that Abu Zubaydah became compliant after 35 seconds of the water treatment.
"'It was like flipping a switch,' Mr. Kiriakou said of the shift from resistance to cooperation. He said he thought such "desperate measures" were justified in the 'desperate time' in 2002 when another attack seemed imminent.
But Mr. Stelter doesn't haul his colleague Mr. Shane over the coals like he does Mr. Ross. This same June 2008 article by Mr. Shane — which incidentally cites very few named sources — contains other pieces of reporting that arguably "sanitize" the CIA interrogation program. The June 2008 Times article also seems to play down the brutality of the interrogations, for instance by describing how the CIA analyst, Mr. Martinez, built a "rapport" with a detainee, who wrote poems to Martinez's wife. The account portrays the efforts in clearly sympathetic terms:
Mr. Martinez came in after the rough stuff, the ultimate good cop with the classic skills: an unimposing presence, inexhaustible patience and a willingness to listen to the gripes and musings of a pitiless killer in rambling, imperfect English. He achieved a rapport with Mr. Mohammed that astonished his fellow C.I.A. officers.
Third, back to ABC News, it appears Mr. Stelter has cherry-picked minor criticisms to portray ABC News as negligent in its reporting. The minor criticisms made by Mr. Stelter, however, could be made against most journalists in America, including many at the New York Times. For instance, Mr. Stelter writes, in a context that is clearly critical, that "Mr. Kiriakou was the only on-the-record source cited by ABC," suggesting that ABC News was amiss in using single on-the-record sourcing.
Coming from the New York Times, which routinely publishes accounts based entirely on unnamed sources, or on single named sources, criticisms of this sort are laughable. (That is not to cast doubt on such stories — I know from my personal experience as an investigator that it is rare for government officials to provide information on the record. Rather, it is to point out that Mr. Stelter appears to have thrown in weak arguments, strengthening the impression that the article is a hatchet job on ABC and Brian Ross.)
One gets the feeling that the article bears the hallmarks of an ad hominem attack on Mr. Ross. It should be noted that nowhere in the article does Stelter mention the extensive and important other journalism on CIA abuses by Brian Ross and his ABC colleagues:
It was Brian Ross and ABC News that first reported, in 2008, that CIA interrogations were discussed in the White House by a "Principals Group" including Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, and Alberto Gonzales, among others — a fact that was confirmed last week by released Bush administration documents.
It was Brian Ross and ABC News that first reported on the minute details of CIA interrogation methods, including the use of cold temperatures, slapping, shackling confinement, and waterboarding — details which have only know be confirmed by government documents.
It was Brian Ross and ABC News that first reported —in 2005— on the specific identities of CIA detainees held in a secret CIA site in Poland.
Nowhere in today's article does Stelter mention the caliber of the journalist that his article attacks, his reputation, or the sheer number of awards that the Brian Ross investigative unit has won for its investigative reporting.
Finally, let me add a few points about my own involvement in Stelter's story.
The original inquiry that I received from Stelter, asking for my assistance on the story, did not single out ABC News or Mr. Ross as the primary subject of the story idea. Based on Stelter's original e-mail to me, I believed Stelter was writing a general media story about how various CIA personnel had provided misleading accounts of CIA interrogations to journalists over the last few years, of which Mr. Kiriakou's account to ABC was one example.
During my actual interview with Mr. Stelter, I provided various examples of misleading information provided by CIA sources to journalists from 2002 to present, and I specifically mentioned that the Kiriakou account of waterboarding working quickly was not the first time that claim had been made. I suggested that Mr. Stelter look at earlier accounts given in articles in Time and Newsweek, and in a book by Ron Suskind, among other accounts. Yet Mr. Stelter focused in large part on the ABC News story, to the point where I actually suggested that Mr. Ross and ABC News should not be singled out for criticism, arguing that it was Kiriakou himself who lied to ABC News, that Mr. Ross had reported that Kiriakou's information was not based on witnessing the events first hand and placed the entire news transcript online; and that other media companies, including the Times, had used Kiriakou as a source in subsequent articles. In today's article, Stelter did not mention any of these points.