Painful Reminders


With some rare exceptions, the media has drifted from the story of CIA-sponsored torture during the Bush administration. But still it begs for the same righteous reporting that Seymour Hersh once applied when he unmasked the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. It remains a vital story for journalists to pursue—not just to affix blame, but to help rebuild our international image and ultimately strengthen national security.

Some media critics will say that journalists shouldn’t be responsible for rehabilitating America’s standing abroad. But that would certainly be a byproduct of reporters digging down with the same ferocity that Hersh employed. It would be proof that we have a healthy press, that we have an independent mechanism for holding an imperial presidency accountable, and that the American media still have a vital role as an investigative arm that will do the work that public agencies won’t.

In the last several weeks, two Bush administration insiders, the usually secretive former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, found themselves in the news and offering up leads that reporters need to chase down. Gonzales granted a rare interview to Texas Monthly; Bybee made the papers after his closed-door testimony to a House committee investigating torture was released.

The men are tied by infamous deeds: Bybee helped write two infamous “torture memos” that went from his desk at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to the hands of then–White House counsel Gonzales. Those memos greenlit the use of waterboarding and inspired other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Bybee now claims he never intended to happen—but that, based on his testimony, rogue elements in the CIA apparently inflicted with brutal precision.

The news accounts of the two men had a remarkable similarity: You hear them both talk about their sensitivity, their humanity … the fact that they have families. You can feel Bybee and Gonzales spinning, mightily, in order to inoculate their legacies and maybe even head off any deeper media inquiries into their role in the ill-fated U.S. torture regimens.

But reporters must not allow that to happen.

Gonzales and Bybee essentially offered investigative journalists road maps: Gonzales admitted that he didn’t know anything about the Geneva Conventions, and Bybee finally admitted that, yes, someone had gone too far when it came to waterboarding and human rights abuses.

Those two admissions alone should jump-start media investigations into the dark story of torture during the Bush administration’s muscled-up “war on terror.” They should inspire editors to work backward from Gonzales’ and Bybee’s words and unleash reporters who can determine whether the two men were inhumanely reckless or criminally negligent.

It’s not just an academic point. As the Washington Post series “Top Secret America” illustrated, since 9/11 the intelligence industry has grown so large that it now employs almost 1 million Americans. The growing demand for information on terrorists can only be satisfied with help from our well-compensated allies in the Middle East and South Asia. In other words, America may have stopped torturing people, but we’re probably still paying other people to do it for us.

Unfortunately, some in the media would like us to forget the whole nasty torture thing. The New York Times’ David Brooks once humiliated himself on PBS in a discussion about Americans torturing other human beings:

“Is this something we want to go back and criminalize?” asked Brooks. For good measure, he leaned on his preferred voice of reason: “This is what Dick Cheney is talking about.”

Well, to answer Brooks’ self-damning rhetorical:

Yes, it is something we want to criminalize.

And the media needs to wake up and hound the truth the way Sy Hersh once did and still does.


Read more about Gonzales in Bill Minutaglio’s unauthorized biography.

Watch Seymour Hersh speak at the Observer’s MOLLY National Journalism Prize dinner.