Interesting article from the Washington Post hit the Web today about Vice President Dick Cheney’s behind-the-scenes role in re-shaping and defining the rules for interrogation in the War on Terror. (Or, as John Edwards calls it, “the war on terror.” On a related note, I like to call John Edwards “pretty.”) It’s a big, long thing on MSNBC.com (8 pages! Take that, Andy Borowitz!) and it contains pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve been following the Abu Graib scandal, the extreme rendition scandal, the waterboarding scandal, the epic Constitutional saga that is Guantanamo Bay, or have seen the movie “Hostel.” In a nutshell, Big Time and his men saw a need for what he calls “robust interrogation” of terror suspects after the September 11th attacks. “Robust interrogation,” unfortunately, involved revving up a 4-wheeler and tearing across the virgin forest that is the Geneva Convention. As a way of getting around this, uh, technicality I guess they saw it as, Cheney’s lawyers found a way to greatly expand executive authority and allow the President to make all sorts of formerly illegal things legal without, you know, asking Congress or the Supreme Court. The Veep’s machinations were eventually revealed to a kind-of disturbed public, then rolled back by the legislative and judicial branches, the latter being most deleterious to Cheney’s strategy in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision. Despite the best efforts of those well-meaning, wide-eyed kids, Cheney and Co. managed to basically cast aside these reforms; the reader is left with the distinct impression that the Vice President is a Sith lord.
You can think what you will about the content of this article. Reactions will be predictable – we’ll have sundry variations on the “I am shocked, SHOCKED” routine, we’ll have sanctimonious head-shaking and finger-wagging on the Left, and we’ll have the standard icy rationalization among those on the Right who love virtually every bad thing that the military or CIA does because they still haven’t given up their boyhood dream of being a real-life spy. The kind with the laser-equipped Cartier and nifty gadgets like that.
I’d like to hit something else regarding this article. This thing is rife with “anonymous sources.” They’re everywhere, like potholes on the streets of Cleveland. I realize that anonymous sources are nothing new, but for such an inflammatory article to rely on them so heavily for any real substance and heft is a little bit troubling to me. Troubling, and annoying. Here is a list of cited sources within the article (this is not comprehensive – I’d like to comb over the entire thing a dozen times to make sure I didn’t miss anything, but I have a full-time job):
1. “A source with direct knowledge”
2. “A former White House official with firsthand knowledge”
3. “Four officials with direct knowledge, none of whom agreed to be quoted by name about confidential legal deliberations”
4. “A senior Justice Department Official who closely followed the debates”
5. “A high-ranking former official”
6. “A former Pentagon official with direct knowledge”
7. “An official with firsthand knowledge” and “a former official with firsthand knowledge”
8. “Close observers”
9. “Participants in the debate”
All told, I found 15 unnamed sources in a 4,400-word document. That doesn’t even count all the times the authors ended a sentence with some version of “officials said.” Sources who were quoted by name included James Baker, Alberto Mora, Timothy Flanigan, and Michael Gerson, none of whom could contribute any real substance pertaining to the timeline of events described in the article beyond stuff that isn’t already in the public arena. This, to me, is weak journalism. Every time a serious allegation is advanced, a pivotal conversation recounted, it is done by a ghost. Someone who is not named, whose identity cannot be known by the average reader, and whose motivation and reputation cannot be judged or considered. Even for those who really want to believe the content of this article, or indeed do believe it, such a journalistic failing damages the article’s credibility.
I know you can’t damn the sources for wanting to keep their names out of it. After all, the minute their names hit the Internet, Cheney would probably kill them with Force lightning, or at the very least do that thing that Dark Helmet does to dudes’ balls when they screw up. That doesn’t mean, however, that the authors have to use what they say. Juicy or not, a guy hiding behind anonymity dilutes the impact of his information by doing so. And by doing it over 15 times in a single article about one topic, the authors of that article obscure the weight of their content behind a gauzy film that turns the article into just another piece of half-assed reporting on a pile that’s already far too high.
Every word of this article may very well be true; not being any kind of supporter of the VP, I wouldn’t be surprised. Cumulatively, though, all that nameless sourcing becomes symbolic of the Bush Administration and the press that has covered it: Nobody takes responsibility for a damn thing, nobody risks their neck for the greater good. Thanks, authorities.