The Mailbag: A Frontline Challenge and Response

Posted by Michael Getler on

I’m away from the office for two weeks of vacation, but I wanted to post, without comment at this time, an important exchange about an important program for readers and viewers to consider.

The program is “Secrets, Politics and Torture,” which attempts a hard look back at the CIA’s controversial and legally complex use of “rendition, detention and interrogation” techniques on suspected terrorists after 9/11. It aired last Tuesday evening as part of PBS’s flagship investigative series Frontline.

The challenge, a very strong one, comes from John McLaughlin, the former CIA deputy director from 2000-2004. McLaughlin addressed his letter to Jim Gilmore, a co-producer of the program who interviewed McLaughlin, among many others, for the hour-long broadcast. McLaughlin sent me a copy of his letter to Gilmore, stating to me that “criticism of CIA’s program is fair but this was SO unbalanced, so unrelievedly condemnatory that even CIA critics should approach it with suspicion.”

I asked Frontline to respond and the answer from the Frontline program’s producers is posted below McLaughlin’s letter.

First, Here’s McLaughlin’s Letter to Frontline’s Gilmore

I have to say that I never seen a more distorted, one-sided, and – I hate to say it – dishonest documentary. In fact I wouldn't call it a "documentary" or for that matter "journalism." At most it was a "show" – A video version of the Senate [Democratic] majority report. If you wanted simply to endorse the Senate majority report, which thoughtful people are now realizing was a botched effort, you succeeded wildly.

I have no problem at all with laying out all of the criticism of the CIA's program. Fine. But you gave practically no time to the other side of the argument. I know you will put more of my interview on the website, but for the vast majority of Americans, Frontline is a TV show and that's as far as most of them will get.

In tonight's show, you simply blew off everything I had to say about the valuable information that came from the CIA's program. To say as you did that we learned nothing of value from KSM [Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed] is simply wrong. Factually wrong. Scandalously wrong. And everyone who actually worked on the CIA program knows it.

And to attack the Agency's case on the Bin Laden takedown by examining Zero Dark Thirty may be good TV but is just misleading and weird. A straw man at best. Why not get real and take on what the CIA itself says in writing about the role of the courier and how we got that information. Possibly because that's too hard.

I know you will say you didn't get many people to talk for our side, but you had close to four hours of me – the number two guy in the US intelligence community – giving you chapter and verse, hard facts, on why the program was effective. You used NONE of that – but had person after person and quote after quote saying the program produced nothing of value. You could have taken at least a little more time away from the bevy of reporters and pundits, all of whom were harshly, almost gleefully, critical of the CIA program and all of whom had only heard about it versus living it. Did you think I was just making this stuff up? Clearly, I had no credibility with whoever put the program together.

On the one sound-bite of mine that you used on that issue, the program immediately goes to the Senate report to say that I was wrong. At no time did you ever show something from the Senate report and go to me saying that's wrong ... or here's what they left out ... or that's distorted ... or here are the facts. I gave you plenty of that.

That is precisely what I feared and why I was counseled against doing the show; that you would edit what I had to say both to limit its content and generally to insert it into the flow of the view you wanted to push.

And incredibly, NO mention at all of the Minority report or the CIA rebuttal. A viewer will have no idea that the report you featured was not a fully endorsed SENATE report but was hotly disputed by serious people – and not just on political grounds. The two opposing papers were serious documents, as some scholars are now discovering.

You hoped I would think the program was "balanced". Not even close. It was so unrelievedly condemnatory that even the most convinced opponents of the CIA's program should watch the show with suspicion. To use one of [former long-time CIA  lawyer John] Rizzo's words, I'm simply flabbergasted.

Frontline Responds

We greatly appreciated John McLaughlin’s participation in our film but take issue with his criticism that it didn’t adequately represent the CIA’s perspective.  This was a hard and fair look at a controversial program, and the agency’s viewpoint is present throughout the documentary.

We’d point out that together, former Deputy Director McLaughlin and former acting General Counsel John Rizzo appear 35 times in the film—more than anyone else. In addition, we posted extended interviews with both McLaughlin and Rizzo on our website, and during the film encouraged viewers to visit the site to read those interviews.  

As for his key complaint that we gave short shrift to the position that the interrogation program was effective, we disagree. In several places, Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Rizzo make the point that they believed the program was effective.  For example, Rizzo describes Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) as "loquacious," and Rizzo tells us he never heard anyone in the CIA express doubts about the program’s effectiveness. The waterboarding of KSM is a case in point. The film presents both sides of the debate. While it includes Sen. Feinstein’s claim that waterboarding was not effective, former Deputy Director McLaughlin says in the film: "Well, you know, dealing with hard-core murderers is not patty cake. They’re going to tell you lies sometimes. KSM lied sometimes. But more often than not, he gave us information that turned out to be true. And we learned to distinguish between the lies and the truth.”

And McLaughlin and Rizzo were not lone voices endorsing the program. We also included an important section reflecting the support of Vice President Dick Cheney, and President George W. Bush:

NARRATOR: Without Rice’s knowledge, the president’s speech writers had been briefed by the CIA about what they said was the program’s effectiveness.

NARRATOR: And the president made an argument for why the program was necessary.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Questioning the detainees in this program has given us information that has saved innocent lives by helping us stop new attacks.

GREG MILLER: [Washington Post] It’s not a speech in which he’s saying; “This is something we did after 9/11 we now regret, we never should have done it.” It’s a speech that’s saying, “We got really valuable stuff as a result.”

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: And soon he began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives—

NARRATOR: Without Rice’s knowledge, the president’s speech writers had been briefed by the CIA about what they said was the program’s effectiveness.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th—

PETER BAKER: [New York Times] It turned out to be a much more of a robust defense of what they had done with the assertion, in fact, that these interrogation techniques had actually worked.

Bush specifically credits the use of the techniques with “saving lives” and “helping to find and capture” those responsible for 9/11.

In his letter, the former Deputy Director also takes us to task for not specifically pointing out the Senate Minority Committee Report and a CIA rebuttal document. While our focus centered on the conflict between the agency and Senate Democrats who authored the critique, we read those documents very carefully in the many months we spent reporting this story.  Frankly, in our view, Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Rizzo were able to present a far clearer and stronger defense of the program, which is we why we used them so often in the film.   

Furthermore, contrary to Mr. McLaughlin’s suggestion, we made it very clear this had become a partisan issue – so divisive that the Republicans apparently did not even want to read the secret internal CIA Panetta report, which Democrats maintain supports conclusions reached by the Committee majority.

Both Mr. Rizzo and Mr. McLaughlin registered their views of the Senate majority’s report in no uncertain terms. Rizzo called it a “hatchet job.” And McLaughlin said, “My sense, in looking at the report, is that they started with their conclusions, and looked through six million pages of documents, an unprecedented number, looking for fragments of chats and e-mails, taking them out of context, and stacking them up to prove the points they wanted to make all along.”

As we note at the end of the film, the debate now is how the story will be told to future generations. Whatever the effectiveness of the techniques, whatever their morality, whatever their legality, we gave Mr. McLaughlin and others the chance to remind viewers of the context in which the interrogation program came about – the terrifying days after 9/11. We were fair in having them set the stage for what happened later.  We were fair in giving him and Mr. Rizzo and the President the opportunity to defend the effectiveness of the program, which they authorized. And we were fair in allowing both Rizzo and McLaughlin to attack the findings of Senate Majority report.

In considering the brutality of the techniques, McLaughlin, pushes back: how moral would it be to let another 9/11 happen he says, and if there were abuses, well, “in war bad things happen.” While no doubt he would have liked to have had more of his thoughts in the film, we believe his views and his defense of the Agency (along with others) were well represented.

Posted on May 23, 2015 at 2:27 p.m.

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