Frontline, torture, and journalistic standards

You may not have noticed this post from former Navy SEAL Matthew Heidt of Froggy Ruminations. On Wednesday Froggy watched the PBS Frontline program’s report on torture. Now regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum Frontline is almost certain to get your blood boiling one way or another.

The particular part of the program that sparked Froggy’s interest was the interview with Army Specialist Tony Lagouranis. In the interview Lagouranis alleged that Navy SEALs were inducing hypothermia in prisoners in Iraq as a means of coercion. You can see how this would attract Froggy’s attention. Froggy wondered whether Lagouranis would have any way of knowing about this or whether he was just repeating third hand rumors.

Lagouranis himself joined in the long and frequently angry comments section and confirmed that, indeed, he had no firsthand knowledge of the events he recounted. Here’s the part of the exchange that caught my attention:

LAGOURANIS: I was very clear in the interview that I didn’t see the SEALs use ice water. I heard about it however from many prisoners over a period of months. I also heard it from a guard who did see it and saw them use a rectal thermometer.

I also was clear about the fact that I did not see force recon torture people. But when a family of 14 tells you the same story of Marines torturing the father at the time of capture, you have to believe it. These people didn’t have an opportunity to coordinate their stories before I spoke to them.

Frontline corroborated my story with other people I worked with.

FROGGY: Let me get this straight, Tony. You are telling me that members of a SEAL Platoon performed this hypothermia procedure with ice water and rectal thermometers in the presence of a military police guard at Abu Ghraib. You then were informed of this by that guard and repeated that charge on national television. That is your story?

The part that grabbed my attention was “Frontline corroborated my story with other people I worked with”. Am I mistaken or is that a statement that Frontline never actually corroborated the story but merely corroborated that there was a rumor going around?

Isn’t that an incredibly low standard for publication?

Just for the record (since I don’t believe I’ve ever written about the subject) my own standards for torture are unrealistically high. I don’t believe it’s justified under any circumstances. I don’t buy the “ticking bomb” scenario since I think it’s just a pretext for justifying otherwise unjustifiable conduct; torture also doesn’t meet the standards of the “Principle of the Double Effect”. Consequently, it’s always wrong.

I also believe that this is a cruel, imperfect world in which courageous action sometimes requires one to do bad things to prevent something worse from happening. We can’t escape from guilt. I’m just glad I don’t have to make the decision.

I’m going to see if I can attract some bona fide journalist-bloggers into this discussion.

Meanwhile, by all means read Froggy’s link-rich post. As a professional interrogator he has specific insights into the situation. And don’t miss the comments section.

2 comments… add one
  • Stories that lack a first-person witness seem less like news and more like a new version of urban legends. Could the stories be true? Possibly, but it’s also possible that they are an expression of our fears (in this case, of man’s ability to treat others inhumanely) made worse by intentional misinformation from those with an anti-war agenda.

  • Good Lord. And blogs get tarnished for putting out opinions without a deep bench source team?

    OTOH, it’s PBS…the people who gave their donor list to the DNC.

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