The Media vs. The War on Terror

How ABC, CBS, and NBC Attack America’s Terror-Fighting Tactics as Dangerous, Abusive and Illegal

Guantanamo Bay: Presenting al-Qaeda Prisoners As the Read Victims

Chart4The immediate military reaction to the terrorism of 9/11 were attacks on al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan and on the extremist Taliban government that hosted Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. Within weeks, the Taliban had fled and a new, pro-American leader had been installed in Kabul, and the U.S. had hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners who could potentially provide valuable intelligence about the enemy. On January 10, 2002, less than four months after September 11, military police began transferring captured enemy combatants to a newly-established prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For most of 2002, the networks covered Guantanamo as a military story, largely focusing on the preparations and security measures. Network reporters frequently stressed the danger posed by the new inmates. On the night the first plane of prisoners left Afghanistan, CBS’s Lee Cowan reminded viewers: "The last time this many detainees were together in one place, it was a disaster. In November, hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban members turned on their captors at a prison in the northern city of Mazer-e Sharif, the same uprising that killed CIA operative Mike Spann, the first combat casualty of the war in Afghanistan."

After 2002, however, the networks shifted their coverage away from the challenge the detainees presented to their military guards. Just 39 stories mentioned the dangers posed by the Guantanamo prisoners (14% of the total). Far more stories focused on charges that the captured al-Qaeda terrorists were due additional rights or privileges (100 stories, or 36%) or allegations that detainees were being mistreated or abused (105 stories, or 38%). (Some stories included more than one topic.)

The networks passed along unverified complaints of prisoner mistreatment, casting the American jailors as the real bad guys. Ten months after the prison opened, ABC’s Peter Jennings introduced a story about "one of the first and only prisoners released from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay." This was important, Jennings insisted, because "human rights organizations have complained the U.S. is violating the prisoners’ rights and acting without regard for international law."

Reporter Bob Woodruff narrated the November 19, 2002 segment about the released prisoner, Mohammed Sagheer who, Woodruff related, "says he had only gone to Afghanistan last year as part of an Islamic teaching group. But swept up in the chaos of the war, he was handed over to the U.S. and flown to Cuba, blindfolded and tied." A translator conveyed the man’s anti-American allegations: "We once gave a call for prayer, and after that, we were punished. This was a difficult time. They beat us, they hit us on the head, grabbed us by the neck. Some people were unconscious, and they were taken to the hospital."

TextBox3Although there was no proof besides the man’s words, Woodruff betrayed no skepticism. He even passed along the ex-inmate’s fear of air conditioning: "He says those who defied the rules were placed in solitary confinement — small, air-conditioned cells. Sagheer, who had never seen air conditioning before, thought it was a kind of torture." Sagheer, via the translator, filled in the blanks: "There was a small window in the roof and a light, and they pumped cold air from a hole in the ceiling. This was the punishment. The air was very cold." ABC provided no rebuttal to Sagheer’s claims of harsh treatment.

Only six stories pointed out how some of the Guantanamo detainees had convinced the U.S. they were no threat, only to rejoin al-Qaeda’s fight. On October 21, 2004, NBC’s Lisa Myers described the hunt for one of Pakistan’s "most-wanted militants, this man, Abdullah Mehsud, a feared Taliban commander allegedly tied to al-Qaeda." Myers reported that Mehsud had taken Pakistani and Chinese hostages, one of whom was killed in a subsequent gun battle.

"The Mehsud story is more than a bit embarrassing for the United States. Until last March, Mehsud was in prison in Guantanamo Bay," Myers explained, adding, "some villagers now consider Mehsud a hero because he seems to have outwitted the Americans, tricked them into releasing him."

The following month, on the November 8, 2004 CBS Evening News, Sheila MacVicar reported similar boasting by ex-inmates. Discussing the al-Qaeda fighters launching attacks on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, MacVicar revealed that "at least some of those now fighting have been in U.S. custody elsewhere, including Guantanamo Bay. One has even bragged he duped U.S. interrogators there."

Despite the knowledge that detainees had used deception to win their way back into battle against the U.S., network reporters exhibited amazingly little skepticism of their claims of innocence and torment at the hands of their American captors. On September 12, 2002, referring to the observance of the 9/11 anniversary, ABC’s Jennings oddly observed: "It was a somber day for U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, obviously. But for nearly 600 prisoners, it was another day. They have no calendars, and nobody told them it was the first anniversary."

The following year, ABC’s World News Tonight weirdly chose the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks to offer a sympathetic view of the prisoners. "There have been 31 suicide attempts to date," reporter Claire Shipman fretted. "Letters home obtained by ABC News show despair. One Kuwaiti prisoner writes [that] he wants, quote, ‘to die, as I cannot stand this place.’...Prison guards have told us that it’s the uncertainty of their fate that is the worst punishment for prisoners here."

Lawyers for the Guantanamo inmates were frequently invited to make their case against the Bush administration and the military’s handling of the prisoners. Anchoring the June 10, 2006 CBS Evening News, Mika Brzezinski interviewed a lawyer for the prisoners, Joshua Denbeaux. No one from the other side appeared on CBS, and Brzezinski mainly lobbed softballs, such as, "You were there as recently as last week. Is the situation getting worse, or is the mentality changing among the prisoners?"

TextBox4Denbeaux portrayed the prison as a desperate place. "Four and a half years of incarceration, most of the time usually solitary incarceration, without any contact with your loved ones, your family, your friends or the outside world whatsover, your mentality is changing," he argued. "It’s a miserable place. It’s the stench of human despair. There is no hope. One of my clients would rather die than stay there." But a British reporter found two ex-detainees who enjoyed their stay at Guantanamo Bay. (See text box.)

On a few occasions, prisoners were able to use the networks to get their anti-American message out. "For the first time today, we heard the voice of a prisoner from Afghanistan being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He yelled out to a Canadian radio reporter who was on a Pentagon bus tour," ABC’s Peter Jennings relayed on March 12, 2002. He then played the man’s claims, which were yelled in broken English: "We are in a hunger strike. We been on a hunger strike for fourteen days and nobody care. We need the world to know about us. We are innocent here in this camp. We got no legal rights, nothing. So can somebody know about us? Can you tell the world about us?"

Eight days later, ABC’s Martha Raddatz filed another report about the prison. "The only real connection between the outside world and the prisoners: one voice," she suggested, then ran a portion of the same clip: "We are innocent here in this camp. We got no legal rights, nothing."

Detainees, their families, and lawyers accounted for 46 evening news soundbites. Discussing the Guantanamo prisoners, attorney Bill Goodman of the Center for Constitutional Rights complained on the June 11, 2006 NBC Nightly News: "These people’s rights are being violated in the grossest way imaginable, in that they are being held — they have been taken from their families, they have been taken from their countries, they’ve been drugged, put on planes, and held without real charges." None of the networks sought out survivors or family members of those killed on September 11 to lend their voices to the debate about Guantanamo Bay.

TextBox5One of the key arguments of the inmates’ lawyers was that justice and fairness required that the detainees be granted access to U.S. civilian courts. The networks implicitly bolstered this claim by focusing far more heavily on the legal issues related to Guantanamo than the military or security issues related to the detainees. Of the 79 soundbites from independent experts (not including lawyers identified as working for the detainees or representatives of the government), 65 were from law professors or other legal experts (82%). Just seven were retired military or other anti-terrorism or security experts, a nine-to-one disparity.

A few of the legal experts argued that al-Qaeda terrorists operated outside of the recognized rules of war and had thus sacrificed their rights. The June 15, 2005 CBS Evening News ran a clip of former Attorney General William Barr at an earlier Senate hearing: "I hear a lot of pontificating about the Geneva Convention, but I don’t see what the issue is. The Geneva Convention applies to signatory powers. Al-Qaeda hasn’t signed it. They’re not covered by the Geneva Convention. Period."

Chart7While 13 of the legal expert talking heads, like Barr, agreed with the Bush administration’s handling of Guantanamo, nearly three times that number (38) attacked the legality of the detainees’ treatment. Among all 79 expert talking heads, the percentage was nearly identical — 19 percent supported the handling of Guantanamo, 58 percent opposed, with another 23 percent offering neutral information.

Besides lawyers for the detainees, the networks highlighted international critics who claimed the U.S. military was abusing the prisoners’ human rights. On NBC’s Nightly News, June 9, 2006, anchor Brian Williams argued that "the prison has become symbolic, and it’s considered a problem for the U.S. Very few know what goes on inside the place they call ‘Gitmo.’ There have been allegations of torture and abuse of the holy Koran, and prisoners who have been there for years face an unclear future."

The subsequent report from Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski highlighted a hostile report from the group Amnesty International: "Opened in January 2002 to hold al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners from the war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo has since become a symbol of prisoner abuse....The heat was turned up recently when Amnesty International compared Guantanamo, where detainees have no legal rights, to Soviet concentration camps." He then ran a soundbite from Irene Khan, the group’s General Secretary: "Guantanamo has become the gulag of our times."

While NBC took Amnesty International’s report as a serious repudiation of America’s human rights record, even the liberal Washington Post had to scoff at the group’s claim of an American "gulag." In a May 26, 2005 editorial, the Post declared: "It’s always sad when a solid, trustworthy institution loses its bearings and joins in the partisan fracas that nowadays passes for political discourse....Turning a report on prisoner detention into another excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty’s legitimate criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of prison systems in closed societies."

On the February 16, 2006 CBS Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer suggested a report by the United Nations was another damning indictment: "Today, United Nations investigators leveled the most withering criticism yet of the U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said eventually the United States should just shut it down."

Reporter David Martin quoted from the report: "Inmates are held under conditions that violate international law and are subjected to interrogation techniques that, quote, ‘amount to torture.’" Only later in Martin’s story did the U.S. get to respond, in a pair of soundbites from White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan: "The UN team that was looking into this issue did not even visit Guantanamo Bay. They did not go down and see the facilities." Martin then returned to Kofi Annan demanding that the prisoners be either charged with a crime or released.

Three days before Martin’s story aired, NBC’s Lisa Myers covered the same story, but was noticeably more skeptical of the UN accusers. Like Martin, she cited the report’s anti-American conclusions and noted that the investigators had not visited the prison. Unlike Martin, she introduced a soundbite from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham: "A senator who once criticized abuses at Gitmo says there have been significant reforms." Senator Graham had nothing but praise for the U.S. military’s effort: "Our treatment of detainees is a model for running a military prison."

Then Myers ran a soundbite from an NBC military expert, retired General Barry McCaffrey, who argued that the inmates are exactly where they belong: "Many of them are extremely dangerous people. More than a dozen that we’ve released already have gone back to attacking U.S. forces."

TextBox6And Myers herself concluded with a jab at the UN’s record on human rights: "This report now must be considered by the UN Commission on Human Rights, which critics say has a questionable track record. They know that three years ago, the commission was chaired by Libya, long accused of abusing human rights."

While the networks ran numerous stories recounting the supposed maltreatment of the detainees at the hands of their American guards, none of the networks bothered to mention news that there have been "hundreds" of instances when the detainees attacked U.S. military guards, using everything from rocks, utensils and even a bloody lizard tail.

The Landmark Legal Foundation used the Freedom of Information Act to get the Pentagon to release hundreds of incident reports, which were summarized by the AP’s John Solomon in a July 31 dispatch (see text box).

"Lawyers for the detainees have done a great job painting their clients as innocent victims of U.S. abuse when the fact is that these detainees, as a group, are barbaric and extremely dangerous," Landmark President Mark Levin told the Associated Press. "They are using their terrorist training on the battlefield to abuse our guards and manipulate our Congress and our court system."

It is unfortunate that the networks gave no airtime to the Pentagon reports made public by Landmark’s efforts. It would have added some balance to five years of coverage that was too often tilted in favor of those who would paint the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as the victims of the War on Terror, not among its instigators.