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. governmentâ€™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 â€” based on your years of experience in this area â€” reliable?”
Mr. Nance replied:
Well, I don’t think that any information that’s taken under distress and duress â€” especially extreme stress and duress like the waterboard puts you under â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” 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.