May 20, 2013
Truthdig Radio: Debunking the bin Laden Torture Myth (Update: Transcript)
Posted on May 4, 2011
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
This week on Truthdig Radio, Mark Danner debunks the bin Laden torture myth; Sharon Smith gives us tips for young activists; Holger Keifel makes art out of boxing; and Chris Hedges says Osama bin Laden’s death will lead to only more terrorism.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews and commentary from the back-to-back defending champion Webby Award-winning Truthdig.com, and the always superb KPFK. On this week’s show, Mark Danner debunks the bin Laden torture myth; Sharon Smith gives us tips for young activists; Holger Keifel makes art out of boxing; and Chris Hedges says Osama bin Laden’s death will lead to only more terrorism.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. Truthdig’s Robert Scheer and Josh Scheer speak with journalist Mark Danner, who has written extensively about American foreign policy and human rights violations. His latest book, “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War,” is just out in paperback and has much to say about torture.
Robert Scheer: Hi, Mark, you there?
Mark Danner: Yes.
Robert Scheer: Hi. It’s Bob. Ah…
Mark Danner: Bob, how are you?
Robert Scheer: Good. Listen, you know, you’re right—you have the expertise to deal with this raging debate between the Fox News people and John Yoo on one hand, and people like Dianne Feinstein and the administration itself on the value of torture in the killing of bin Laden, or the capture and killing of bin Laden. So what’s your view?
Mark Danner: Well, it’s clear that an event like this lets everybody unleash their particular blasts from their ideological point of view. And not the least of the peculiarities in our present politics, you know, about a decade after 9/11, is that torture has become a kind of political touchstone. The Republicans use it as a judgment of how tough you are on terrorism; if you’re not for torture, if you don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to protect the country, then you can’t be serious and you are engaged in coddling terrorists. And Democrats, much more modestly and much more tentatively, try to defend—not to put too fine a point on it—following the law. And, as I say, they are by no means as ferocious as the other side, which sees torture as really a kind of badge of manliness and also, at the same time, of course, has a very self-interested motive in saying that these things that clearly broke the law were necessary to keep the country safe. So every time we have an incident like this one, in which the war on terror rises up before us one more time, they are very quick. And we’re talking about Dick Cheney; Karl Rove; John Yoo, of course, who’s always in the forefront. They are very quick to come forward and say, see, this stuff that we did that was so controversial in fact was absolutely vital in protecting the country. The problem is, of course, that there’s no proof of that. In fact, if you listen to people who are in a position to know—Dianne Feinstein is a good example; also John Brennan, counterterrorism chief in the White House, who was a high official in the CIA under George W. Bush—they say quite unequivocally that this is balderdash, that this is not true. And no less a figure yesterday than Donald Rumsfeld said the same thing. He said that, again quite unequivocally, that interrogation played a role, but not waterboarding and not harsh interrogation. So, you know, we have conflicting accounts now of the timeline of how this happened, but the single kind of very tentative bit of reality that all of the people on the right seem to be hanging their argument [on] about the necessity of torture is the giving over, seven years ago, of a nom de guerre of a courier for Osama bin Laden. Even this little bit, little kernel of information, seems very much disputed, as I say. It seems to have come from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and was confirmed by Faraj al-Libbi. Whether indeed this information was given under waterboarding—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of course, was waterboarded 183 times—has not at all been confirmed. No one in a position to know, to my knowledge, has actually said this. There seems to be an assumption on the part of various players that any information that came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed must be owed directly to waterboarding. So, you know, this case says more about our politics, and what our politics have become after 10 years in the war on terror, than it does about the realities of interrogation.
Robert Scheer: You know, actually, on a factual point, The New York Times—which didn’t, in its story today, use the word torture…
Mark Danner: Yeah, they don’t use it.
Robert Scheer:…they’ve fallen back on “enhanced interrogation.” They say that the information turned over by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was deliberately false on his part, and misleading. And—but let me ask you a question. Aside from, you know, whether this turns out to be valuable. One of the justifications of being against the Soviets in Afghanistan is, of course, their tactics were brutal. And when we were on the same side as Osama bin Laden and other Muslim fundamentalists, fighting the Soviets, the brutality of their methods and their indiscriminate attacks on civilians, but also their torture and everything else, was one of the justifications for our intervention.
Mark Danner: Absolutely. Yeah. During the ’80s, of course, the extreme brutality of Soviet methods in Afghanistan was a major help in organizing the mujahedeen and in organizing, obviously and more importantly, the native, the native Afghan mujahedeen—not the Afghan Arabs. But you’re quite right, and it is a strange phenomenon, again, of our time that certain people in the U.S. seem extremely eager to claim the mantle of brutality for themselves, as a kind of badge of seriousness. And I think it’s not the least of the sad developments over the last decade that this has not only become an accepted political position within the U.S.—to be for torture—but it’s become a kind of touchstone of the right. So we have one political party that’s enthusiastically for torture, and views it as a sign of whether or not you’re really tough on terrorism and serious about it; and then we have a second political party that’s ambivalent, basically; that, some members of which are against it, but most members of which would rather not talk about it.
Josh Scheer: You know, I was watching Fox News with Bill O’Reilly and Congressman Peter King, and they were positively giddy. You know, Bill O’Reilly was like oh, well, it proves it, right, it proves it that it works.
Mark Danner: Yeah, I saw that interview. [Laughter]
Josh Scheer: And, you know, I mean—do you think this is also because the media doesn’t have anything else to report about Osama bin Laden? That they’ve kind of just, kind of grabbed whatever they can, and torture is the big, you know, touchstone?
Mark Danner: Well, I think that can’t be understated. The fact is that you have some events, and this is a good example of them—of those events that are kind of media-thons; I think that phrase is Frank Rich’s—in which, you know, the gravity of the event demands 24-hour coverage. And you need to fill it with something, and of course if you can fill it with a kind of political controversy like this, all the better. You know, you get everybody out there, Fox News kind of arranges its cannons from Karl Rove to Peter King to John Yoo, to all these people on the right, and boom, boom, boom. You know, they let loose. And then you have the other side taking apart these arguments and showing there’s not really anything there. It’s certainly not a very elevating spectacle, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with actual policy. I mean, it doesn’t—the fact is that the tiny little bit of, perhaps, fact here, which is an interrogation seven years ago, is not at all confirmed. I mean, it’s an assertion which a number of high officials such as Feinstein and Rumsfeld have directly denied. And even if it was true, it’s—you know, to say that harsh—if it weren’t for harsh interrogation, Osama bin Laden would never have been tracked down and killed, is a ridiculous statement. Even if you take the assertion about the original slipping out of the nom de guerre of Mr. al-Kuwaiti as true—you know, if we stipulate it—it’s still, we’re talking about seven years ago; we’re talking about one pseudonym, one nom de guerre, which—at a stretch, you can say it was necessary; it certainly wasn’t any near way toward being sufficient. So, to—even if you assume what they say is true, to argue that this was necessary for the capture or for the killing of bin Laden is just a ridiculous argument, so far as I can tell.
Josh Scheer: You know, we talked last year, actually, on the Truthdig Podcast with you and James Harris. And we talked about “24” and the ticking time bomb.
Mark Danner: Right. Yes, I remember.
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