Archive for the ‘Media Matters’ Category

Media Matters for America’s Weekly Update

August 17, 2007

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The weekly update from Media Matters for America

The misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit

Jose Padilla was convicted yesterday, not for plotting to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the U.S., as the Bush administration alleged — and the media breathlessly reported — when he was arrested in 2002, but of a conspiracy to aid terrorism abroad. During the five years between his arrest and conviction, Padilla — a Brooklyn-born American citizen — had been held for years without being charged, without having access to an attorney or to the outside world, subjected to interrogation techniques that have been described as torture, and, according to psychiatrists who have examined him, has been mentally broken.

All at the hands of his own government — the United States government.

There are few better reasons for having a free press than exposing potential government torture of its own citizens. And yet, after hyping the Bush administration’s initial announcement of the arrest of the so-called “dirty bomber,” the three major evening news broadcasts largely went silent about the government’s treatment of Padilla.

In 2002, when Padilla’s initial arrest was announced, ABC’s coverage of the Bush administration’s allegations was typical:

On June 10, 2002, World News Tonight aired a clip of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft claiming that Padilla was an “Al Qaeda operative and was exploring a plan to build and explode a radioactive dirty bomb.” ABC’s Pierre Thomas added, “By early May, law enforcement officials believed [Abdullah al-] Muhajir [an alias Padilla allegedly used] decided to come back to the U.S., looking for high-profile targets, including government buildings and monuments in Washington.”

On June 11, World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings introduced another report about Padilla by announcing, “The man who is accused of planning to attack the U.S. with a so-called dirty bomb is now in military custody. Perhaps, he’ll have a trial some day.” Thomas went on to report that Padilla “was moved from the criminal justice system to a military prison yesterday. His lawyer, who has not been allowed to see him yet, says it was in violation of his constitutional rights. … Government officials say their first priority is to get information from Muhajir [Padilla], not to prosecute him.”

ABC’s report included video clips of President Bush, Ashcroft, and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. ABC did not, however, give any indication that anyone other than Padilla’s attorney was concerned that he was being held without access to his lawyer and without being charged.

On June 12, World News Tonight again reported on Padilla’s arrest, with Jennings announcing, “ABC News has learned that some officials in Washington believe the Attorney General John Ashcroft overstated the case. In the White House, some officials believe he was unnecessarily frightening the public.” ABC’s Jackie Judd concluded the segment: “If it turns out that Padilla, seen here in a 1991 court appearance, actually was very far from carrying out a bombing, critics say the administration may risk its credibility, first with the politicians, then with the public.”

And with that, World News Tonight abruptly stopped reporting about Padilla, who remained in government custody, without being charged, and without access to an attorney. Other than a few passing mentions of Padilla, World News Tonight ignored Padilla for more than a year. Ignored the questions about whether he was “very far from carrying out a bombing,” ignored the question of whether the Bush administration had overstated the case against him, omitted any substantive discussion of the implications of an American citizen being held without being charged, and without access to an attorney. And ignored the implications of the government’s ominous suggestion that it wasn’t interested in prosecuting him, but in getting information out of him.

In January 2003, The New York Times reported: “Last week, the government disclosed in a court filing that military personnel had been questioning Mr. Padilla for several months and that allowing a lawyer into the process could harm ‘the military’s efforts to develop a relationship of trust and dependency that is essential to effective interrogation.’ That, the government added, could ‘set back his interrogations by months, if not derail the process permanently.'”

Yet World News Tonight remained silent. How was Padilla — an American citizen, held without being charged, without access to an attorney — being treated? Even after the government said its intention was to get information out of Padilla, and referred to developing a feeling of “dependency” in Padilla as part of his “interrogation,” the circumstances of Padilla’s captivity were not addressed on World News Tonight.

Padilla was being held “incommunicado.” The government had spoken of “interrogation” and “dependency.” There was already a compelling case that his rights were being trampled — he was, after all, being held without charge and without access to an attorney. Yet the question of what, exactly, was being done to Padilla was completely ignored by ABC’s flagship news broadcast.

Finally, in September 2003 — more than a year after Padilla’s arrest, and more than a year since it had last offered a substantive report about Padilla — World News Tonight aired an interview with Ashcroft, in which Jennings asked about Padilla. Jennings asked Ashcroft why Padilla had not been charged or allowed to see an attorney. Jennings did not, however, ask Ashcroft how Padilla was being treated.

Then, World News Tonight again went silent, not mentioning Padilla — not a word — for the next three months, until a late December 2003 report about a federal court decision that Padilla must be transferred from military custody to the criminal justice system. ABC’s Pierre Thomas noted that Padilla had “not seen his attorney or his family in more than a year.” But still there was nothing about the way Padilla was being treated.

Throughout 2004 — thanks, it should be said, to investigative reporting by a variety of news organizations — Americans learned more and more about the way the Bush administration was treating captives. That spring, news of the horrific prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib sparked a national discussion about torture. In June 2004, The Washington Post reported that the Bush Justice Department had advised the White House that “international laws against torture ‘may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations’ conducted in President Bush’s war on terrorism.”

At that time, Jose Padilla — an American citizen had been held “incommunicado,” without being charged, without access to a lawyer, for two years. Did his “interrogation” — which, according to the government, involved creating a feeling of dependency in him — involve torture?

What was the nature of Padilla’s interrogation? What were the conditions in which he was confined? World News Tonight didn’t even raise the question.

In November 2005, World News Tonight aired a report indicating that Padilla was not charged with plotting to set off a dirty bomb because the evidence against him may have been obtained by torturing two members of Al Qaeda. ABC’s Pierre Thomas reported “some officials admit that if Padilla went to trial as the alleged dirty bomber, there would be serious questions about the way the two men were interrogated.” And, Thomas noted, “Another problem for the government may be the way it got Padilla to confess to the alleged dirty bomb plot.” But Thomas was speaking only of the fact that Padilla was held without access to an attorney. Deputy Attorney General James Comey was then shown saying, “We can’t use any of the statements he’s made in military custody. I don’t believe that we could use this information in a criminal case because we deprived him of access to his counsel. And questioned him in the absence of counsel.”

How was Padilla questioned “in the absence of counsel”? Even in the middle of a news report about the possibility of “torture” and “waterboarding” being used on other detainees, World News Tonight didn’t raise so much as a question about the nature of the interrogation of Padilla or the conditions of his confinement.

Even after other news organizations began to report allegations that Padilla was being tortured, World News Tonight ignored the matter.

In November 2006, The Washington Post reported that “defense lawyers have made detailed allegations that Padilla was illegally tortured, threatened and perhaps even drugged during his detention at a Navy brig in South Carolina.”

But even after Padilla’s lawyers made these “detailed allegations” of illegal torture, World News Tonight ignored — completely ignored — the subject of Padilla’s treatment.

A month later, in December 2006, The New York Times reported, “Now lawyers for Mr. Padilla, 36, suggest that he is unfit to stand trial. They argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of ‘truth serums.’ ” The Times further reported that, according to Padilla’s lawyers and a forensic psychiatrist who examined him, Padilla was uncertain whether his attorneys actually represented him or were part of the government’s interrogation tactics, refused to review video recordings of his interrogations, and was reluctant to discuss what happened to him in the brig for fear of being sent back. According to one attorney, “During questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. … The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel.”

Still, World News Tonight didn’t report a word about Padilla’s treatment. In fact, after the November 2005 report, the next time the program made more than passing mention of Padilla, according to the Nexis database, was a May 13, 2007, report that Padilla’s trial was about to begin. For the first time, viewers of ABC’s signature news program (which had, in the interim, changed anchors and its name, now called World News) were given an indication that Padilla may have been abused:

GIGI STONE (ABC News correspondent): But the charges Padilla will face in Miami tomorrow accuse him only of conspiring with terrorists. They make no mention of dirty bombs. And Padilla’s attorneys will not be able to present the argument that he was abused by American interrogators.

WALTER DELLINGER (professor, Duke University School of Law): That may be the reason why the government has dropped the charges about his planning to set off a dirty bomb because it’s, his alleged admission may have been the product of his alleged abusive treatment.

That was it.

And that is still it. To date, that remains the most detail ABC’s World News has ever provided about the conditions of Padilla’s confinement or the nature of his interrogation.

Since then, World News has aired only one Padilla report: last night, upon news of his conviction. During that 30-second report, anchor Charlie Gibson falsely suggested Padilla had been charged for the alleged “dirty bomb” plot, omitted any mention of the fact that he was held for years without being charged or having access to an attorney, and omitted any mention of the way Padilla was treated.’s Alex Koppelman wrote of Padilla’s conviction:

Actually, according to the [Christian Science] Monitor, today’s verdict may have come as happy news to Padilla. He was terrified that if he were acquitted, President Bush would declare him an enemy combatant again and move him back to the brig. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Padilla, told the paper that “there is no question in my mind that his first and most important priority is to not go back to the brig. This is what leaves me chilled, if one were to offer him a long prison term or return to the brig, he would take prison, in a heartbeat … He told me more than once that if he went back to the brig he knew what he had to do.” What he “had to do,” Hegarty said, is commit suicide.

Just four days ago, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Padilla “had no history of mental illness when President Bush ordered him detained in 2002 as a suspected Al Qaeda operative. But he does now. The Muslim convert was subjected to prison conditions and interrogation techniques that took him past the breaking point, mental health experts say. Two psychiatrists and a psychologist who conducted detailed personal examinations of Mr. Padilla on behalf of his defense lawyers say his extended detention and interrogation at the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., left him with severe mental disabilities. All three say he may never recover.”

The Monitor continued:

Beyond the outcome of his Miami trial, larger issues loom. Chief among them, legal scholars say, is whether Mr. Bush acted within his constitutional authority when he ordered Padilla, a United States citizen, held without charge as an enemy combatant at the brig for three years and seven months.

Padilla’s treatment in the brig raises another issue, these scholars say: whether the Constitution ever permits the government to force a man to confess to involvement in terrorist plots and, in doing so, risk destruction of a portion of his mind.

Those issues, however, went entirely unexplored by ABC’s World News in its report about Padilla’s conviction.

Nor have the other networks done any better.

In its report on his conviction, the CBS Evening News noted that Padilla was “locked up in a military prison and labeled an enemy combatant for three and a half years” — but made no mention of the possibility that he was tortured, or even that he was held without being charged or given access to a lawyer. No surprise there; the CBS Evening News has never reported a single word about allegations that Padilla was tortured or otherwise abused, not a single word about the conditions in which he was held.

Similarly, NBC’s Nightly News omitted from its report on Padilla’s conviction any mention of the fact that he had been denied access to a lawyer, only hinted that he was held for years without being charged, and said not a word about the possibility that he was abused. The only time Nightly News has ever reported a word about the nature of Padilla’s detention came last December:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): Now to the first-ever pictures of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla while in custody. Padilla, an American who was declared an enemy combatant and held at a Navy brig at Charleston, South Carolina, is shown being readied to be taken to the dentist. His hands and feet were slipped through slots in the door so he could be shackled, and he was forced to wear noise-blocking headphones and blacked-out goggles. Padilla’s lawyer say the pictures shows harsh treatment he was subjected to, treatment the Pentagon today called “humane.”

That was the entire report — one of only five Nightly News reports to so much as mention Padilla’s name in the past three years.

Whether or not Jose Padilla committed conspiracy to aide terrorism abroad may ultimately be of less significance than whether our own government, in its treatment of Padilla, did greater damage to the values and principles that define America than he ever could have done himself.

A functional democracy requires a vigilant press watching out for such things, standing guard to make sure our freedoms are not cheated by pursuit of that which threatens them.

The flagship news broadcasts of the three major broadcast networks have failed in that responsibility, and failed badly.


Further reading:

  • The Christian Science Monitor‘s August 13 report about Padilla’s interrogation can be found here.
  •’s Glenn Greenwald has long been critical of media coverage of the Padilla case. Greenwald’s take on the verdict, with links to his earlier writing on the topic, is here.
  • The excellent group blog Firedoglake has extensively covered Padilla; recent highlights can be found here and here.

(Oh, and maybe I posted this because it said such nice things about Firedoglake…)