There's a fascinating new idea abroad in some parts of the right-wing blogosphere: that Friday's story about the torture and death of two Afghan prisoners in US custody is just an attempt on the part of the New York Times to divert attention from Newsweek's retraction of its story on flushing Qur'ans down toilets. Some cites:
Instapundit: "READER JAMES MCCORMICK EMAILS:Does the latest NYT articles on deaths-in-custody in Afghanistan smack of diversion to take the heat off Newsweek? Set a fire somewhere else so Newsweek never has to acknowledge any responsibility for its acts. Newsweek can return the favour during the next NYT scandal. The MSM guild is all about authority without responsibility. Can't have that change ...
And it's not just the NYT, as I've seen other examples of this phenomenon in quite a few outlets. As Martin Peretz noted, they're circling the wagons."
John Podhoretz at The Corner: "The New York Times continues the bizarre act of carrying Newsweek's water in the wake of the false Koran-desecration story (which I write about this morning here). The paper's lead story is a lurid account of the vicious treatment of two Afghan prisoners by U.S. soldiers -- events that occurred in December 2002 and for which seven servicemen have been properly punished. Let me repeat that: December 2002. That's two and a half years ago. Every detail published by the Times comes from a report done by the U.S. military, which did the investigating and the punishing. The publication of this piece this week is an effort not to get at the truth, not to praise the military establishment for rooting out the evil being done, but to make the point that the United States is engaged in despicable conduct as it fights the war on terror. In the name of covering the behinds of media colleagues, all is fair in hate and war."
This is just crazy.
For starters, let's remember that we are talking about actual people and their actual motives, not about characters in some personal fantasy. Actual people sometimes do things for motives that don't fit our personal story lines. In this particular case, I don't know of anyone who has adduced any positive evidence at all that the desire to take the heat off Newsweek played the slightest role in the Times' decision to publish this story.
For another, the idea that this is an old story that the Times has just decided to rehash is wrong. What's new about this story is pretty clear: "a nearly 2,000-page confidential file of the Army's criminal investigation into the case, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times." (cite) This report provides a wealth of detail that wasn't previously known. The idea that once it has been reported that these two Afghans died as a result of being beaten to death in US custody, it's not worth reporting any new information that comes out is just bizarre. Consider how odd it would have been to say, during the Monica Lewinsky affair, that since the fact that the President had had his fling with her had already been reported, any new stories providing extensive and significant new information about their, um, liaisons could only be ascribed to hatred of Bill Clinton or a desire to undermine the Presidency.
Moreover, the Times story seems to have involved significant reporting. In addition to getting the file and reading through its nearly 2,000 pages, the reporters seem to have tried, for instance, to track down and interview the interrogators named in the report, as well as Pentagon officials, other "military intelligence officials who served at Bagram", "the American commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan", and family members of one of the prisoners who died. (The story cites "interviews conducted after their release" with those who were detained with that prisoner, but that doesn't make it clear whether or not those interviews were conducted for this story.) I don't know just how long it takes to do all this legwork, but it seems pretty unlikely to me that the Times reporters did it all in the week or so between when the Newsweek story became really controversial and when the Times story was published.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post, the Times' biggest competitor.
It's crazy to think that we can just assume that whenever one news organization does something that seems to help another news organization, it must be trying to help that other organization, without bothering to ask whether we have any positive evidence for this claim, whether the first news organization had some independent reason to do what it did, or whether it could have done all the requisite reporting (or whatever) after the second news organization's need for help became apparent; or, in short, without considering the evidence. It is the exact same sort of craziness that might lead one to conclude that the President invaded Iraq for oil simply on the grounds that he was once an oil man. (Note: I do not myself believe that we invaded Iraq in order to make profits for oil companies, but I can imagine some sorts of evidence that would convince me I am wrong about this. What I can't imagine is reaching this conclusion without considering any of the evidence for and against it, simply on the basis of the claim that he was in oil, and this helps his old buddies. And that's the sort of argument that Instapundit, Podhoretz, and the rest are making.)
It's wrong to think that this is somehow "anti-military". Here I will just quote from an excellent post by John Cole, which is worth reading in its entirety:
"If some have their way, a full accounting of the nefarious misdeeds of a few won't happen, because that would require that we accept blame for what has been done in our name, and that might require a level of candor and responsibility that many do not seem to possess. That would require an honest and open debate, a full documentation of events, and accountability. As it is, I will leave it to Hugh and the rest of his supporters to figure out how the status quo is the 'Christian' response to torture and murder. Maybe he is just taking a page from the Catholic church's response to child abuse.
Much like it was for Cardinal Law, for Hugh and those who view this issue as he does, the problem is not the abuse. The real problem is the press frenzy surrounding the abuse. "The media coveage is over the top," we were told then. "These are just a few isolated incidents," we were assured. "We don't tolerate abuse or those who abuse," it was said. We all know how that turned out, and I would prefer to spare the military and our soldiers the taint the Catholic Church is still trying to shed. (...)
It is precisely because I value the record of my military service, and because I hold in such high regard people like BlackFive, Greyhawk, and the millions of others who have served and bled for this country and who Hugh pretends to speak for that I want the media to cover these stories and for this administration to deal with swiftly, forcefully, and in plain sight. It is because I believe so deeply in our mission in Afghanistan and the Middle East, that I want the press to cover these transgressions and for us to stop them. Not, as some would have you believe, because I hate America or hate the military or hate this administration.
Maybe it would be best to ask the soldiers. Would they rather labor in harm's way with the rest of the world suspecting the worst of them, or would they rather there be a clear and open prosecution of those who ARE the worst of them? Which do you think they would prefer? Which approach makes their lives more dangerous and more difficult? Whose approach to this problem is going to create more IED's, suicide attacks, and bombings?
To suggest that we do otherwise and to try to bully the media into ignoring these abuses does the administration no good, does our servicemen no good, does America no good, and leads me to believe that Hugh Hewitt and those like him are nothing more than our own right-wing versions of Michael Moore."
Finally, just to state the obvious: this is a democracy. We have a free press. Writing stories about things other people do wrong is part of their job. When they do their job, it's a good thing. Some problems are publicized, and improved as a result. Some problems never occur precisely because the people who might have caused them stop and think: how would it look if this got into the papers? And we, the citizens, are more informed. This is important in any case, but it's especially important when, as in this case, we are paying for the war in question, our soldiers are acting in the name of our country, and they, along with more innocent cab drivers, may be put at risk if these abuses are not corrected. The idea that it is un-American for the press to report stories that are true is completely and dangerously wrong.
John Cole again:
"If the rot goes all the way to the top, we have a right to know, and I say cut it out with a scalpel, disinfect it with the cleansing light of media transparency, and continue on with our terribly important mission. If there is nothing there, think of it as a clean bill of health for the military and the administration. But if there is a problem, deal with it. The last time I went to the doctor, I didn't attempt to revoke his license or question his motives or begin a smear campaign against him because I had let myself become overweight.
And that is what is most disturbing about the short-sighted and indefensible position of the 'uber-patriots.' Put aside the demagoguery, the denial, and the smears. Put aside the wishful thinking, the demonization of the media, and the claims that anyone who is outraged by this abuse is un-American, anti-military, hyperventilating over nothing, or out to get the President (which I am decidedly not). Instead, spend 1/10th of the energy you spend defending the status quo and urge the Republicans to use our majority status and the trappings of power we now enjoy with the control of Congress and the Presidency, and stop the torture and abuse. Do that, and your critics won't have anything to complain about.
Why is it that few, if any, members of the Republican party have called for congressional investigations? I wonder if that would be the same response for Hugh and the Republicans in Congress if Clinton were President? We have time for investigating the use of steroids in professional sports, seemingly endless debates about Senate filibusters, and a whole bevy of unimportant issues, but when it comes to torture, the prevailing attitude is 'Let's just pretend nothing happened and villify anyone who refuses to go along.' "