CNN misses chance to ask about 'better' interrogation techniques

The laser-like focus of the nation’s print and television press on waterboarding has probably left most Americans with the conclusion that it is torture. But CNN’s Wolf Blitzer missed a chance Tuesday to ask about interrogation techniques that one interviewee claimed were “better.”

That’s what happens when journalists believe they know already know what the story is before finishing their reporting. They miss the chance to listen to what someone says and ask the right follow-up question. In his Tuesday “Situation Room” interview with intelligence consultant Malcolm W. Nance, Mr. Blitzer missed the opportunity to furrow more deeply into the issue of torture as an interrogation tool. Was it intentional? Did he just “run out of time”? Or did he just not recognize the opportunity?

Mr.Nance’s blog bio at Small Wars Journal describes Mr. Nance as “a counter-terrorism and terrorism intelligence consultant for the U.S. government’s Special Operations, Homeland Security and Intelligence agencies. A 20-year veteran of the US intelligence community’s Combating Terrorism program and a six year veteran of the Global War on Terrorism he has extensive field and combat experience as an field intelligence collections operator, an Arabic speaking interrogator and a master Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor.” Mr. Nance clearly has the appropriate background to say what is or is not torture.

During the interview, Mr. Blitzer prodded Mr. Nance to explain waterboarding, label it as torture, and suggest who uses it and how often. After a video clip of President Bush calling “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal, Mr. Blitzer prodded Mr. Nance to suggest whether “the information that is received — based on your years of experience in this area — reliable?”

Mr. Nance replied:

Well, I don’t think that any information that’s taken under distress and duress — especially extreme stress and duress like the waterboard puts you under — is reliable. I mean you will say anything, you will do anything to get the procedure to stop.

Earlier, when Mr. Blitzer asked Mr. Nance to describe waterboarding, Mr. Nance said:

Of course, I can’t go into the complete details of this, but I can tell you that it’s a very professional procedure. It’s done very quickly. A person is brought to a position where they are unable to move. And then, of course, the procedure is carried out with a large volume of water.

Mr. Blitzer redundantly simplifies for dramatic effect (It is television, after all):

And you’re lying there. You’re strapped in. You’ve got a cloth over your face. What does it feel like when all of a sudden you’re — this water is coming upon you?

Mr. Nance then points out that waterboarding does not simulate drowning — it is drowning, he says:

It’s a process where your throat, your sino-nasal passages, your esophagus, your trachea is overflowed with water and it starts to enter your lungs, and, of course, you go through the actual drowning process.

Then Mr. Blitzer repeats the notion:

And it feels like you’re dying?

Replies Mr. Nance:

Well, you are technically dying because, of course, your respiratory system is being degraded over a period of time. But it’s very controlled. And, of course, that’s the intent.

By now viewers are probably convinced that waterboarding is nasty, evil and un-American. Perhaps that was Mr. Blitzer’s intent — to demonstrate the horror of a techique that Mr. Nance said he “believes is torture.”

After several minutes, Mr. Blitzer’s intent was clear: Provide evidence waterboarding is torture and therefore illegal. Maybe a producer directed Mr. Blitzer to end the segment. (“Cut to commercial.”) Maybe Mr. Blitzer had completed what he intended to do.

But did he miss the news? Here’s how the interview ended:

Mr. BLITZER: So, basically, what you’re saying, if it were up to you, you’d bar waterboarding as an interrogation technique.

Mr. NANCE: I’d bar waterboarding because there are better techniques.

Mr. BLITZER: Malcolm Nance, thanks very much for coming in.

Sheesh. Why didn’t Mr. Blitzer ask:

What are these “better techniques”? Why are they “better”? Are they torture? Are they legal? Have they been used? Are our armed forces trained to resist these “better” techniques? Do they involve physical duress? Are drugs used?

Mr. Blitzer has long been considered the “iron man” of American television journalists. He is on air six days a week for about 18 hours. That does not always translate into competent, complete, clear coverage of any issue.

Is it fair to fault Mr. Blitzer on one interview? Yes, because the viewers should have been told more about a topic that has undermined American credibility worldwide. He was given the window to do so, but he closed it.

12 replies »

  1. Is it fair to fault him on one interview, no. Of course, it’s been awhile since Wolf struck as anything other than an entertainer.

    But you’re right. These pieces have to fit into a template, don’t they? Communication as ritual – James Carey was right….

  2. Personally, I’m more incensed by Nance’s comment about how “professional” a procedure waterboarding is. It’s good to be efficient when torturing other human beings, after all.

    Sometimes I despair for the future of our species.

  3. Wolf spends too much time on-air and in the studio. He has been a reporter of considerable talent and merit over the years. But too often he brings people together in a studio environment in which the *point* of the segment seems pre-ordained.

    How often do you see him interview someone, then introduce a video clip, saying, “Look at this.” He baits people, and it’s unbecoming someone of his talent.

  4. On Wolf: bad reporter doing bad reporting. He’s been a TV monkey since Gulf War I made him a “star.”

    On Nance: The fact that it’s “professionally done” makes it all the more likely that it IS torture, doesn’t it, mein herr?

    On this piece: brilliant journalism lesson well taught. Thanks, Denny.

  5. By now viewers are probably convinced that waterboarding is nasty, evil and un-American.”

    Beg to differ. I think everyone has missed what the controversy about waterboarding is about. Because a cloth or cellophane or whatever covers the face, people think waterboarding is just a simulation of torture. Americans would never pour water directly into the throat — that’s for gooks and the like.

    In fact, however, most Americans are down with torture. The forbidden-ness of it and its often gradually increasing intensity simulate the sex that much of them aren’t getting.


    On Wolf: bad reporter doing bad reporting. He’s been a TV monkey since Gulf War I made him a ‘star.'”

    You hit the nail on the head. He may be the single most disappointing reporter I’ve ever come across.

    Finally, on Nance — cool that you checked out Small Wars Journal,
    a favorite blog of mine. Nance’s post on torture, which is probably what got him on TV (I was surprised to see him on MSNBC) is perhaps the single most eloquent piece of writing on torture. Excerpt:

    The carnival-like he-said, she-said of the legality of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques has become a form of doublespeak worthy of Catch-22. Having been subjected to them all, I know these techniques, if in fact they are actually being used, are not dangerous when applied in training for short periods. However, when performed with even moderate intensity over an extended time on an unsuspecting prisoner – it is torture, without doubt. Couple that with waterboarding and the entire medley not only ‘shock the conscience’ as the statute forbids -it would terrify you. Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American.

    We live at a time where Americans, completely uninformed by an incurious media and enthralled by vengeance-based fantasy television shows like ’24’, are actually cheering and encouraging such torture as justifiable revenge for the September 11 attacks. Having been a rescuer in one of those incidents and personally affected by both attacks, I am bewildered at how casually we have thrown off the mantle of world-leader in justice and honor. Who we have become?”

  6. Dr. Denny,

    Perhaps things have changed (I kinda doubt it) but my experience with the national television news media as former head of media and investor relations for a Fortune 500 company is that the people doing the interviews aren’t really acting as journalists. My experience (though 20+ years old, now) includes interaction with “60 Minutes,” the three network morning shows, “20/20,” the big three evening news programs (before Fox and CNN), and even TV Asahi and other international organizations.

    Luckily, I never had to handle a breaking news story of national import, so perhaps these organizations function differently in those situations, but the feature stories with which I was involved all worked pretty much the same way. A producer would come in (Greg Cook from “60 Minutes,” for example) and do all the groundwork, interviews, and what have you. Then, s/he would go back to HQ and, in conjunction with others, potentially including the TV star interviewer, decide how to angle the story. This decision usually involved how dynamic certain people were likely to be on camera, the B-roll they could get, etc.

    Once the interview actually happens, I doubt there’s really much room for any questions beyond the ones chosen to elicit certain responses useful within the framework of the intended piece. I don’t think Blitzer missed the opportunity. I think he wasn’t interested. The answers would be irrelevant in context of the message his organization was trying to send.

    In other words, this doesn’t really seem like a typical interview situation to me. It seems more like a courtroom situation in which the attorney avoids asking questions to which she doesn’t already know the answer. The pre-interview by the producer is more like the deposition/discovery phase in which one is trying to find things out. But the courtroom experience is far less fluid.

  7. “Once the interview actually happens, I doubt there’s really much room for any questions beyond the ones chosen to elicit certain responses useful within the framework of the intended piece. I don’t think Blitzer missed the opportunity. I think he wasn’t interested. The answers would be irrelevant in context of the message his organization was trying to send.’

    JS: Your take is trenchant and saddening. And you said it better than I did, which I appreciate.

    It’s no longer journalism. It’s messaging strategy. It’s Fox redux, only centrist instead of conservative. But to what extent does the public believe it’s still journalism?

    The example I use, of course, is not isolated. I see it on CNN (and other network and cable news outlets) far too often.

    I guess that’s why it’s called “programming.” Thanks for your comment.

  8. Thanks for your inside perspective, JS. Enlightening, to say the least. To say more, it has the makings of a major article.

  9. Dr. Denny,

    Not to depress you, but … well … I guess I’m going to depress you anyway with these three stories:

    1. “60 Minutes” wanted to air parts of one of our commercials in its segment to demonstrate the fierce competition in our industry. Naturally, we were thrilled with the idea of about $2 million worth of free advertising, but bizarrely enough, we had run out of budget for paying residuals to our actors. So, we checked with the union to see if this came under a news show’s fair use doctrine, and found that they defined “60 Minutes” not as news, but as entertainment.

    So, we paid the residuals.

    2. My wife, when only 17, broke a regional news story in her high school newspaper that got picked up by the Seattle Times, Post-Intelligencer, and all the other dailies in Washington and Oregon (not that they gave her attribution for breaking it, mind you). She later went on to be editor-in-chief of a daily reaching 30,000 workers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (again, at 18). She then went to college to study journalism on a full-ride Hearst Scholarship. She quickly found that her journalism classes largely involved the art of figuring out what story she wanted to write, then structuring her questions to get the quotes she wanted.

    She dropped journalism.

    3. I was on a local school board task force to study the effects of reporting class rank to colleges on admissions, financial aid, and internal high school gamesmanship. After an extensive and rigorous research process reviewing both anecdotal and hard data, conducting scores of interviews with high school counselors and admissions officers at some of the US’s most elite colleges, and reviewing the data in sometimes contentious task force proceedings, we came to the unanimous conclusion that reporting class rank, in our district, reduced the odds that our children would get into the colleges of their choice, shut off avernues to many merit scholarships, and caused our students to play GPA maximization games that hurt their education.

    The unanimous vote took about 1 minute after 3.5 months of hard work on our parts, in a group that was strongly divided on the question when we started.

    In the process of telling the community our recommendations, the “New York Times” came out with an article critical of the general movement towards withholding class rank from admissions officers. The reporter in question used quotes from admissions officers critical of the trend. The only quotes in support of withholding class rank came from some high school guidance counselors whose comments focused on how hard it was on the kids not to be #1. In other words, the article’s slant was that failing to report class rank was mollycoddling, anti-competitive, anti-excellence, and HURTING admissions chances.

    So, I exchanged e-mails with the reporter in question, since he had just made my job MUCH harder (in fact, some parents showed up to community meetings with his article in hand). He admitted that he started with an angle that was contrary to most past articles on the subject, and that this was the only way to do the story since, “Why go over old ground?” When I mentioned conflicting evidence available from a quick google search, including the only rigorous study done on the topic by a professor at CUNY, which wouldn’t even be a long-distance phone call for him, his answer was something to the effect of, “Oh yes. I heard of that professor, but that wasn’t the story I was doing.”

    Keep fighting the good fight, Doc.

  10. JS,

    Pass the hemlock, pls.

    Thanks for taking the time to depress me at such length. 🙂

    I can only say that in the 1970s, when I arrived in the newsroom, I had good teachers who knew what news was. Sometimes the most basic of questions are never asked:

    How much does it cost?
    Who’s gonna pay for it?

    Those two questions alone would take journalists to so many unexpected destinations … yet they’re rarely asked.

    But I was taught to ask them — and then print the answers, no matter who they please or displease.

    I need a drink …

  11. “In fact, however, most Americans are down with torture. The forbidden-ness of it and its often gradually increasing intensity simulate the sex that much of them aren’t getting.”


    This may be the greatest thing you have ever written. 🙂