The Torture Investigation Mystery Show

So there’s been a lot of speculation in blogtopia about Attorney General Eric Holder’s reportedly renewed intentions of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the authorization and use of torture in the previous administration. The speculation — which revolves around the question of who Holder intends to prosecute, more than whether he intends to prosecute — has been fueled by these three articles:

  1. Daniel Klaidman’s piece, published Saturday in Newsweek, which reported that AG Holder had returned to the possibility of prosecutions.
  2. Carrie Johnson’s Washington Post article titled “Probe of Alleged Torture Weighed,” published on Sunday, which speculated that any investigation would be limited to CIA interrogators who had gone beyond the “guidelines” prescribed by the Bush lawyers.
  3. Scott Horton’s “Torture Prosecution Turnaround?” published in The Daily Beast, also yesterday. which suggested that the scope of prosecutions, if they happened, would be wider.

I certainly agree with Tim, Glenn, and Spencer that if investigations and/or prosecutions are going to be limited to low-hanging fruit, it would be better not to do anything at all. But I don’t think it’s at all clear that’s what Holder has in mind.

Keep in mind, first, that — as Glenn himself pointed out —  the predictions as to what Holder will do in both articles — Johnson’s and Horton’s — are being made by anonymous sources. I’m not going to take any claims seriously that come from sources without names or identities attached to them. It’s not even that I think these people are unreliable, whoever they are. I’m sure they are high-ranking officials who know Holder well. But no matter who they are, if they are anonymous, they might as well be no one, because there’s no accountability. No other journalist can call them up and confirm what they said. So they can say whatever they want, but it has no gravitas until they are identified.

And that leads me to the other reason I don’t take these claims about Holder’s intentions seriously: They’re not meant seriously. They’re meant to test the waters. Isn’t that what corporate journalism is about these days? Anonymous sources test-driving major decisions by calling reporters at major papers and sending out trial balloons?

It can actually be entertaining sometimes to see how reporters for top national papers parse the reasons for not naming the sources. There’s a whole structure and style to presenting sources anonymously. First, there is the obligatory first mention, “…according to three sources. …” This is usually included in the opening paragraph, but sometimes it’s the second or third. Then, several paragraphs further down in the article, you get the “reason” why these sources are not being identified. And I put “reason” in quotes because, obviously, there’s only one reason. But Carrie Johnson can’t very well tell us that her sources would only agree to speak to her on background “because they don’t want to be held responsible for the information they’re leaking.” So instead, she writes that the sources “spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing process.”

Thank you to Digby for inspiring the above rant by saying exactly what I had been thinking (in the first Update to her post about the Brain Trust at This Week With George Stephanopoulos).

2 Responses to “The Torture Investigation Mystery Show”

  1. Tanya says:

    Kool post. No matter what, somethings will always remain mystery.

    In fact, I myself have been trying to solve the mystery of the legend that forces you to have “earn it before having it”, for a wile now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

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