Philippe Sands, dishonest journalist of the year

Dishonest journalism was rampant in 2008, a presidential election year after all. But the most flagrantly dishonest journalism that I know of this year was committed outside the immediate context of presidential politics by Philippe Sands in his book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values. In this book Sands peddles what we might call “the torture narrative” – the view that the Bush administration was hostile to the Geneva Conventions, encouraged abuse and torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and reaped the consequences when the culture of torture spilled into Iraq at Abu Ghraib.

To advance this thesis, Sands persistently claims that Douglas Feith, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, opposed giving any detainees at Guantanamo the protections of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. He further claims that Feith wanted the detainees to have no protection at all under Geneva and worked to ensure that none of the detainees could rely on Geneva.

These charges are dishonest. Sands purports to base them on an interview he conducted with Feith. But the transcript of that interview, when finally released, failed to support Sands’ charges and, in fact, refuted them. As to Geneva Article 3, it was never mentioned in the interview. As to Geneva generally, Feith told Sands several times, as plainly as anyone could have, that he believed Geneva does apply to the conflict with the Taliban but that, under Geneva, Taliban members are not entitled to prisoner-of-war status. For example, Feith stated: “So the argument I made was: [Geneva] applies as a matter of law but they are not entitled to P.O.W. status.” (emphasis added) He also told Sands, “I didn’t want anybody saying the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply.” Sands responded that he “recognize[d]” Feith’s distinction between the question of whether Geneva applies and the question of whether certain detainees are prisoners-of-war under Geneva.

Feith’s view of Geneva is firmly rooted in its objectives. The idea is to withhold prisoner-of-war status from outfits like the Taliban whose fighters do not obey the basic rules of war such as wearing uniforms, as opposed to blending into and endangering civilian populations. In this way Geneva provides an incentive, the prospect of P.O.W. treatment, to obey the rules of war. When Feith explained this to Sands he responded, “I appreciate that.”

How, given Feith’s clarity and Sands’ “appreciation,” did Sands extract from his interview the proposition that Feith was hostile to Geneva and believed that no Gitmo detainees had any protections? He did so by ignoring Feith’s core distinction (which he had recognized during the interview) and by crudely misrepresenting what Feith told him.

To cite perhaps the most blatant example of distortion, Sands takes Feith’s use of the word “absolutely” and applies it to the proposition that Feith intended to give no Geneva interrogation protections at all to any Guantanamo detainees. But Feith did not use the word “absolutely” to assent to this proposition. Here is the relevant portion of the interview:

Sands: At the time those issues were discussed, was it ever considered that this would have implications for the interrogation of people who were caught?

Feith: Oh yes, sure.

Sands: So the fact that they were outside the Geneva Conventions. . .

Feith: Absolutely. Hold on a second – you said outside the. . .

Sands: Sorry – they are not entitled to prisoner-of-war status?

Feith: That’s a big difference.

Sands: So let’s stick to your distinction, which I recognize.

Clearly, Feith did not use the word “absolutely” to signal his agreement with the view that Gitmo detainees have no rights. Rather, he was starting to agree with what he thought would be an accurate restatement by Sands of his distinction, but immediately rescinded his agreement when he realized that Sands was misstating the point – a mistake for which Sands quickly apologized, as he should do now.

These and other misrepresentations and distortions by Sands are serious enough by themselves to make Sands a contender for dishonest journalist of the year. But what clinches the prize is Sands’ conduct after Feith called him on his falsehoods. At a congressional hearing at which the two appeared, Sands tried to support his claim that Feith wanted no Gitmo detainees to have Geneva by relying on a quotation in which Feith said that al Qaeda detainees have no Geneva protection. But Feith was clear that Taliban members do have such protection due to the international nature of our conflict with them.

And Sands defended his claim that Feith opposed giving any Gitmo detainees Article 3 protection by asserting that he “did not pick up any hint of receptivity to Common Article 3” on Feith’s part. But Sands never asked Feith about that Article. An honest journalist attempting to gauge Feith’s “receptivity” would have done so. Moreover, Feith emphasized during the interview that the Gitmo detainees should receive “humane treatment” which is what Article 3 calls for.

Throughout the debate, Sands asserted that the interview transcripts supported his claims. In response to a letter Feith wrote, Sands stated pointedly that Feith “may not recall that our conversation was recorded; the quotations are accurate.”

It now clear, as demonstrated above, that Sands distorted and misrepresented what Feith said. Yet Sands continues to insist that the book is accurate. His shameless insistence on the accuracy of his statements about Feith, coupled with his telling breach of his promise to “run any quotations” by Feith before using them in his book, makes Sands the dishonest journalist of the year.

There are two views of the Bush’s administration’s interrogation policy. One is Sands’ torture narrative, which the liberal Democrats parrot, wherein those who made decisions with which he disagrees betrayed the country and may have become war criminals. The other is the view Feith conveyed to Sands during the interview: that patriotic individuals trying in good faith to protect the country and the Constitution made difficult judgment calls, some of which may have been incorrect.

Sands is certainly entitled to embrace the first view. However, he is not entitled to misstate facts in support of that view. That he felt compelled to do so destroys his credibility and suggests that his thesis is warped.

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