DRIVEN by a precipitate lust to discredit the Bush administration, The New York Times has misread a recent Justice Department report on alleged government abuse of terror suspects. More important, the front-page smear job set off a chain reaction of imitation news articles across the country, parroting the Times’ error. Thus has the war on the war on terror been waged - with misrepresentation, group thinking and blinding biases.
The Times announced on July 21 that the Justice Department’s inspector general had “received 34 complaints of civil rights violations by department employees that it considered credible.” Lest the reader miss the significance of this purported scoop, reporter Philip Shenon editorialized: “The inspector general’s report . . . is likely to raise new concern among lawmakers about whether the Justice Department can police itself when its employees are accused of violating the rights of Muslim and Arab immigrants swept up in terrorism investigations under the [USA Patriot Act].”
The linchpin of the Times’ purported expose is its statement that the inspector general “considered” those 34 complaints “credible.” This phrasing suggests that the inspector general had investigated the complaints and reached a factual judgment about their truth.
But the office of the inspector general puts the matter differently. According to its July 17 report, the office received several hundred filings over the last six months that appeared to state a claim within its jurisdiction. Upon closer analysis, however, the vast majority of those several hundred complaints, as written, proved to be unrelated to the Patriot Act. That left 34 that, according to the report, “raised credible Patriot Act violations on their face.”
The key phrase here is “on their face”-a lawyer’s usage that means that a claim, as written, meets legal requirements of sufficiency.
The July 17 report drew no conclusions about the likely truth of those 34 facially valid complaints - nor could it, for it has opened investigations into only six of them. Yet the nation’s press corps dutifully took the Times’ bait. “Abuse of post-9/11 detainees detailed; 34 ’credible’ cases in follow-up report,” trumpeted the Chicago Tribune the next day. “Report outlines rights violations in Sept. 11 Act,” announced USA Today.
Only the Washington Post got the story right: “The Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating six complaints from Muslims who have alleged that federal employees pursuing enforcement of the USA Patriot Act violated their civil rights or civil liberties,” read its lead.
I spoke with the inspector general’s spokesman, Paul Martin, on the day of the Times’ front-page expose. Martin was being inundated with calls from reporters piggybacking on the Times’ article.
“What they should be doing is reading the report,” he lamented. “The New York Times didn’t get it quite right,” he said, noting that the Times did not speak with his office before publishing its story. “It overplayed what this is and isn’t. We have received 34 allegations which on their face cite a Justice Department employee and a Section 1001-related abuse [the Patriot Act section empowering the inspector general to investigate civil-rights violations]. That’s all it is.” But the Times “sets the agenda,” he observed, rightly anticipating the next day’s lemming invasion.
But enough of this legal nit-picking! Just because the Justice Department has yet to investigate all 34 of the Patriot Act complaints doesn’t mean that they don’t show a real civil-rights problem, right? Wrong. Here are summaries of the cases that the inspector general recently closed after further investigation.
* Case Number One: An illegal alien detainee claimed that he had been beaten, denied adequate medical treatment and forced to eat pork on a regular basis. The investigation showed, however, that the detention facility had a 100 percent pork-free diet and that the detainee had consented to having his badly infected teeth removed.
* Case Number Two: A detainee claimed that an unidentified guard had slammed his cell’s food tray door in his face and failed to provide medical treatment. But the detainee refused to look at a photo line-up of guards that the inspector general had created to help him pick out his assailant or to submit to an interview. Despite conducting numerous interviews in the jail, investigators were unable to substantiate the alleged attack.
The Times’ front-page scoop presumes that an allegation of abuse is the equivalent of proof of abuse. If the closed cases are any indication, that is a shaky assumption.
The inspector general recounts only two complaints for which substantiating evidence has been found. In the first, a prison guard has admitted to verbally abusing a Muslim inmate - the charge against him was that he had ordered the inmate to remove his shirt so he could shine his shoes with it.
In the second, the Bureau of Prisons substantiated the charge that a prison doctor had taunted an inmate. The inmate had claimed that the doctor said during a physical exam: “If I was in charge, I would execute every one of you . . . because of the crimes you all did.”
Such insults are deplorable. But they are irrelevant to the validity of the legal authority granted under the Patriot Act. Neither the guard nor the doctor was acting under Patriot Act powers; they were fulfilling prison duties that existed long before the act. The vast majority of post-9/11 complaints are garden-variety prison-abuse cases, almost always by guards.
Some perspective is in order: The number of complaints under investigation, even if all prove true, is a minute fraction of the thousands of contacts that the government has had with immigrants from terror-sponsoring and -breeding countries over the last two years.
Thirty-four facially valid complaints of abuse and disrespect out of tens of thousands of contacts is a testimony to the professionalism of the law enforcement community.
Second, the Times’ ongoing attacks on the Bush administration fail to acknowledge how unprecedented the bureaucratic machinery is that was put in place immediately after 9/11 to protect Muslims from bigotry. Never before in the history of war has a government taken such care and spent such money to safeguard the rights of aliens, immigrants and enemy-combatant suspects. In the last six months, the Special Operations Branch has spent nearly half a million dollars advertising for civil-rights complainants on TV, radio and in newspapers and then investigating the resulting complaints.
A true news analysis of the Bush administration’s war on terror would read: Government safeguards civil liberties while strengthening national defenses. Don’t expect The New York Times to write that story, however; it’s not news the Times deems fit to print.