What Does it Take to Have an Open and Honest Conversation About Torture?

Portside Date:
Author: Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights
Date of source:
Praxis Center - Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership

Peter W. Klein is the director of the Global Reporting Centre. He has won three Emmys and has been a journalist for over 25 years. He cut his teeth covering the war in Bosnia for NPR and then began to work for ABC Evening News and "60 Minutes." He continues to be producer for "60 Minutes" and he also produces stories for The New York Times Retro Report. His parents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary, and he is the father of four children.

Klein is the current head of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism where I taught a course on the Ethics, Tactics and Tensions of Human Rights Reporting. We have known each other for over five years. In light of the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA role in torture ("The Torture Report") and International Human Rights Day, I asked Klein about his experience as a journalist covering torture - importantly what can be gained from interviewing torturers. As with any good journalism, there were more than two sides to the story.

On a rainy November evening I sat down with Klein to discuss his understanding of the role of journalism and the journalists in covering terrorism: what are the ethics and the responsibilities of interviewing a torturer?

I have always been interested in global stories that tend to be ignored. I always had the attitude if everyone is going in that direction - it is probably a good idea to go the other way. I am a counter-intuitive journalist in some ways. I just like to find my stories that no one else is looking for.

When you are talking about everyone else going in one direction and you going in another direction, do you have an example?

It is kind of a simplified picture I just painted but I'll give you an example. There was a story in 2000, before 9-11. It was one of those rare tiny stories in The New York Times. It was an AP story, a couple hundred words. There was a doctor, Larry Ford, in Orange County, California who committed suicide and the police got a tip that he might have weapons. So the police go and they find old guns buried in his backyard, botulinum toxin in his fridge, and evidence of his interest in anthrax. That's kind of weird, right? And that was the end of the story. No one really went beyond that.

But because I had covered the militia movement extensively in the United States and because I had covered bio terrorism, a big light bulb went off in my head and I was like, "there's a lot more to this than meets the eye."

I started delving and looking further and further into it and found there was a lot more to it.

This guy had CIA connections. He had been a consultant to South Africa's apartheid era government and its bio warfare program, which is well documented. They had a big bio warfare program. Through sources in both the U.S. and South Africa I got documents that showed that he and the head of the bio warfare program in South Africa had corresponded by letter and actually met. They discussed collaborating with bio warfare type intelligence. Separate from that, this guy had connections to a white supremacist movement in the United States.

So this little, tiny, back news story in California led me to South Africa where I met and interviewed Wouter Basson the head of the bio warfare program in South Africa. At the time, Wouter Basson had just been acquitted by a South African apartheid-era judge and was acquitted of what were essentially war crimes.

They were developing "kaffir-killing germs" as they called it, pigment specific germs. They had a program to spray ecstasy on crowds. They had a program to lace pornographic magazines with anthrax and then pass them around to soldiers who were enemies of the white South African regime.

The point is they had a vibrant bio warfare program. It is well established and there were connections to the CIA. The U.S. government in some ways supported that regime because it was anti-communist. And this guy, the doctor, Larry Ford, was tangible proof of the connections between the CIA and the apartheid regime.

This all grew out of what I found out as a journalist. People like to talk about investigative journalism as the high bar. digging.  I don't agree. First of all, most journalism is not investigative journalism. And most journalism does not have to be investigative journalism because the stories are there. You just have to start looking.

When was the first time that you actually covered a story about torture?

This is one of those stories where again, everyone was looking in one direction and I wanted to look in another direction. On October 20, 2011 Walter Pinkas, a well-respected national security reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a story about four high value detainees in the War on Terror. It was not on the front page - it wasn't a huge story. But it was a story that said, "Here we got these people. Bad people. And they probably know something about impending attacks." The piece described how the FBI is bound by all these laws, bound by the anti torture statute and the FBI internal rules. Remember, before 9-11 we didn't waterboard people. We didn't even use extreme sleep deprivation.

I was like, "Wow! People are actually going bat-shit crazy and talking about torture!"

Now please remember, my wife and kid were in the 9-11 attack. I thought my family was dead that day. I didn't know they were alive until late in the afternoon when an ER doctor called me. So I understand that fear as well or better than most Americans. But still I was like, "Really? We are talking about torture?" And I had enough experience reporting on government to know that if that's leaking out, some shit is going down.

So I went to Mike Wallace whom I was working with at the time and said, "What do you think about doing a piece? Not an investigative story because - I'll do as best as I can but I probably can't get much - but let's explore this notion of what is torture. I said, "Why don't we look at torture? Has it ever been used? How has it been used? What are the legal frameworks that prevent it? What kind of legal frameworks might allow it? Is it effective?"

So you were proposing a thought piece.

Public opinion polls are showing that 1/3 of Americans are supporting the idea of torture. Americans are scared. People are scared.

Yeah, a thought piece. At least one person in the government was taking about it, probably more than one, so why don't we talk about it too. They are talking about it behind closed doors, let's talk about it too. And public opinion polls are showing that 1/3 of Americans are supporting the idea of torture. Americans are scared. People are scared. So let's just see, does torture happen?

What we discovered is yes, it does happen. We have had other government's torture people. In the Nairobi-Kenyan bombings the FBI went there. The FBI didn't torture people, the Kenyan police did. For us.

Like outsourcing?

Outsourcing. Or what we call rendition. That was not uncommon.

Was the first time you covered torture post 9-11?

The first time I really reported on torture was after 9-11. It was the first big story about torture in the United States.

Did you actually end up interviewing torturers?

Yes. One of the main things that I wanted to do was make sure that I was interviewing someone who tortured.

Why was that important?

Because I had a notion, perhaps an incorrect notion: when you torture there are a lot of people involved. There is the person you torture, but there is also the torturer. And why do they do it? Perhaps when there is some history, maybe you are contrite? Maybe you can kind of teach us a lesson? Sit down with us, tell us. Maybe you regret it, right?

So who is the best person for this? Like so many people I had seen the Battle of Algiers and it was in my mind, the French Algerian war, fear of Muslims. Paul Aussaresses was still alive and he was willing to come to New York. So I thought this was perfect. Here is this guy who tortured people himself and I want to hear what he has to say. Here's this guy in a nice shiny suit.

And to my surprise he was quite supportive of the use of torture all these years later.

Here is this guy who lives in France and is saying, "It was effective and we were able to achieve our goals which was to break up these cells. You guys are now in the same position in the United States, you might want to consider it."

What lessons can you learn from that?

One thing that I wanted to learn in talking to a torturer,  - I guess every person is different - but I wanted to see: did this destroy him? Did this destroy his soul? Is he like a broken man wracked with guilt?

And he wasn't.

It was Hannah Arendt who discussed the banality of evil. When you meet these people you can imagine the things they've done. You can imagine the almost cartoonish maniacal laughter as they put the electrical probes on someone's genitals. But they are not cartoon characters. They are real people. And for most part they are quite likeable. They are friendly. They are kind. They open the door for you. And they say, "Please" and "Thank You" just like everyone else. And they are very presentable.

And they are not evil people. This whole notion of evil always bothered me. For as long as I can remember it bothered me. And when George Bush called the terrorists "evil doers" that bothered me. They are not "evil doers" they have a geo-political goal and yes, they did terrible things, no question about it, but they are not evil.

Evil almost forgives it.

What do you mean by that?

Well, like when a school shooting happens or a serial killer does something - well you can say "he was a psychopath" or there is some sort of organic reason why this happened: they have a disease in their brain and they have no control.

But these people are not diseased. Wouter Bassan and Paul Aussaresses are not diseased people.

They are regular people who in a very methodical way decided, "okay, the ends justify the means and these are the ends I believe in." Now, you may not believe that the apartheid-era government of South Africa is an end you believe in, but Wouter Bassan clearly did. And you may not believe in the French side of the French-Algerian war, but in his heart of hearts Paul Aussaresses genuinely believed it was right. He chose to use certain means to achieve that goal. But to call it evil almost excuses it, almost says, "the Devil made him do it."

When I originally proposed this story idea to you and said, I want to talk with you about interviewing torturers, your response was `I love interviewing torturers!' Why?

I think our responsibility as journalists is to try and convey to the public the reality - right? As much as we can. The reality is the people who do these things are, for the most part, not raving maniacs foaming at the mouth that enjoy torturing people. But they do believe it is justified.

And I think that understanding how they think it is justified is important.

Interviewing them helps us to understand our mindset, understand where we are, once again, as a society.

I want to go back to your thinking that it's important to talk to the torturers because they truly believe in what they are doing and that the ends justify the means. How does doing journalism better explain that?

Look, my job is to shine a light, and I mostly do television journalism so I am really shining a light.

Everyone wrings their hands about the Holocaust. The Nazis. Again there is a cartoonish evil. And certainly the television and movies played into that, the cartoonish notion of the evil Gestapo guard, right? But most of these guards weren't evil. They did bad things. But, again, there was a society and the politicians and the guards conspired for that atrocity to happen. There wasn't a lot of journalism being done at the time interviewing concentration camp guards, but wouldn't it have been amazing if we could have done that at the time? If we could have talked to the people doing those things or after they did it. What was going on in their minds? Why did they do it? How did it happen? What was going through their minds?

And maybe we can learn something.

Some folks would say that by interviewing torturers you are giving them space to tell their story and it can seem more justified. But that does not sound like what you are saying.

No. Look, you give people the rope and they can do what they want with it. People always ask, "How do you get these bad guys to sit down with you?" Well first of all, similar to my problem with calling people "evil," there is no such things as "a bad guy". And two, they truly believe in what they are doing. I'm giving them the rope.

You're giving them the rope, but do you as a journalist have an idea of what the piece should be?

Yes, of course you may have a notion of where it might be, but you have to let the facts take it where it goes. I assumed that if I was going to interview someone from the French Algerian war they were going to be contrite about it and be like, "Hey learn from my mistakes. This is one of the greatest stains on our history. Don't make the same mistakes we made."

But that is not what Paul Aussaresses said. He said something different.

One of the most interesting take-aways from Aussaresses is that it was the first time I had ever heard of waterboarding. It was years before we collectively as a society learned in 2004 when the story broke on waterboarding. The term didn't even exist if you did a Nexus search. But Paul Aussaresses said yes, we did the bamboo on the fingernails and the probes on genitals but the most effective method was to put a towel on someone's head and pour a bucket of water on them. Then they choke. They can't breathe any more. And that is the scariest thing in the world. And then they will talk. So he basically told us this was the most effective method of torture.

Now, did I give the U.S. government the idea? Did some staffer say, "Hey I saw this show on "60 minutes," put away the genital probes and get out the towels, the water and the bucket!" I'm sure I did not.

As a journalist, what are the ethics that you are thinking of when you are going to interview a torturer and give him or her airtime?

We don't have the Hippocratic Oath, but I abide by the notion of do no harm. That said, doctors do harm when they do medicine too so there is no purity here. Journalists do harm as well, but I don't set out to do it.

I guess the question is: what is the harm in giving airtime to the torturer? I don't know what the harm is. The reality is, people are talking about this, so let's talk about it from as many angles as possible: people who were tortured, people who did the torture, people who are against torture, human rights organizations fighting against it, a law professor who is trying to struggle with this on a philosophical level. Let's just have an honest conversation about it. The government is not doing it - so it falls on us to do it.

Who is the "us" here? Is this a journalistic responsibility or a public responsibility?

I would say both. The public has a little more agency to start the conversation, but back then, the public did not have much power. So as journalists we are, in some ways, we are the fourth estate; we represent the people in a way. People are talking about this. Can we just have an open and honest conversation, please?

Is it that people were talking about it, or that people weren't talking about it?

That is the point. People may have been talking about it privately in their homes, but it wasn't a public conversation. You take me to task for interviewing torturers, and I take myself to task for accepting the government's line when I investigated the "terrorist probes." I never said "alleged terrorist probes." We journalists just took it on faith that the government had some bad guys. The interesting question is, "Should we torture people who are bad guys?" But I never questioned whether the government even had bad guys. And it turned out the "bad guys" arrested immediately after 9-11, the four terrorists in Walter Pinkas' article, were innocent except for immigration violations.

I set out to interview one of those "bad guys" who turned out to be a very sweet taxi cab driver deported to Syria. His name was Nabeel. I spent a few days with him in Damascus. He spent years in different prisons, in solitary confinement. He lost his wife. He was deported. But because he was never waterboarded 168 times his story was not covered.

That is why I wanted to interview Nabeel. It is real people that this happened to, not a theoretical terrorist or a theoretical innocent person, it's real people.

What are you working on now?

It is looking with a little bit of distance, 13 years after 9-11, it is a piece looking at how torture came to be. How the public ended up talking about this and discussing it, how the pundits and the policy makers understood torture.

A discourse analysis on torture?

In fancy terms, yeah. It's like a terrible car crash with eight different cars, so the traffic accident inspectors say - okay - what happened here? Usually, it's not just one guy who did it; it's a conflation of lots of things. That guy was on his cell phone. The light was out. It was raining. It's rarely just one person.

In terms of torture, people like to say Cheney was behind it. Yes, Cheney said we need to go to the dark side, but this is not all Cheney; there were a lot of people involved. Alberto Gonzales, John Yu. There were a lot of people involved in a methodical way to think of the legality and effectiveness of all these methods. There were people in the CIA, the FBI, and various branches of the military, and there are inconsistencies between them. I am compiling a lot of the evidence that is already out there and bringing it back to the public.

We are almost at the point of admitting we tortured people and that it was bad. So how did we get here? We need to talk to the people that brought us to that point.

[Shayna Plaut is Contributing Editor for Human Rights at the Praxis Center of Kalamazoo College. She has designed and taught courses on human rights and human rights reporting to journalists and future producers of culture in the United States and Canada since 2004.   Among other things, Shayna earned her PhD at the University of British Columbia focusing on the intersections of journalism, human rights and social change with people who identify with being transnational. Her academic work focuses on how Romani (Gypsy) and Saami (the Indigenous peoples in the Nordic Arctic) journalists teach their own how to be journalists - and what we can learn as we try and develop better reporting on human rights. Since 2000, Shayna served in a variety of leadership positions with Amnesty International and Amnesty USA including the Human Rights Education Coordinator for the Midwest Region of Amnesty International USA.]

[Evan Bissell is an artist and educator.  He facilitates multi-disciplinary, community-based art projects for public installation and the internet. Bissell has exhibited on Alcatraz Island, at Yerba Buena Center for the  Arts, Intersection for the Arts, and SOMArts. Bissell teaches art and leads public projects in schools (K-12) throughout the country. He is currently pursuing a joint Masters in Public Health and City Planning at UC Berkeley and was the first artist-in-residence at the American Cultures Engaged Scholar Program at UC Berkeley. He is the director of knottedline.com and freedoms-ring.org.]

Source URL: https://portside.org/2014-12-11/what-does-it-take-have-open-and-honest-conversation-about-torture