It's a little late for questions now.

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Torture Report, Rolling Stone and False Dilemmas

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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A fascinating side event to the furor over the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the treatment of post-Sept. 11 detainees has been the debate over the majority staff’s bizarre decision not to interview the Central Intelligence Agency officials who oversaw the interrogation programs. It’s as if the Watergate Committee had announced that, all things considered, there wasn’t any reason to seek comment from White House higher-ups.

By not talking to relevant CIA personnel, the staff weakened what was in most other respects a thorough and troubling examination of poorly conceived and poorly run program. But one needn’t be a supporter of the enhanced interrogations -- I’m certainly not -- to find unpersuasive the proffered explanation that CIA officials could not talk to the committee while a criminal investigation was pending.  The investigation closed in 2012.  Had the committee wanted to interview CIA officers closely involved in the program, there was plenty of time to do so, even if it meant postponing the date for finalizing the report.  If, on the other hand, there are pending criminal matters to which the public isn’t privy, then releasing the report with all the accompanying hoopla is sure to poison the jury pool. 

Why, then, didn’t the staff members speak to ranking intelligence officials, either in the CIA or elsewhere in the executive branch? Perhaps we see at work a malady that has become all too common: a reluctance to disturb the narrative.

Nowadays, narratives are all the rage, and inconvenient facts and testimony are generally left out of the story. This is exactly what got Rolling Stone magazine in trouble. Even back when I was a college journalist, we never ran a controversial story without seeking a response from the other side. But Rolling Stone, in its vivid account of a rape alleged to have occurred at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, did exactly that. No comments from the accused; no comments from the fraternity; no comments from the accuser’s own friends. The accuser supposedly placed these limits as a condition of writing the story. Why on earth did the magazine go along?

Surely the same explanation applies. To do otherwise would have disturbed the narrative. Sexual assault is said to be rampant on campus, and Rolling Stone had a powerful story to tell. Adding even routine denials, to say nothing of the sort of widely varying accounts that a serious investigation would surely have unearthed, would have reduced the power of the tale.

It’s hard to believe that the magazine would have stumbled into the same thicket of unprofessional journalism had it been reporting on, say, a source’s allegations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative organizations. Possibly the story wouldn’t have run at all; certainly it would not have run without a serious effort at verification.

Similarly, had the staff of the Senate committee decided to interview CIA officials with deep knowledge of the detainee program, the report might have had more trouble reaching the bald conclusion that no actionable intelligence was ever produced. Here the narrative was caught up in the need to avoid moral nuance. It’s a defensible position -- and, I think, a correct one -- to argue that the enhanced interrogation program was wrong whether or not it produced occasional results.

But that entirely sensible argument is difficult to present in a world of Twitter and television talk shows. Had the otherwise excellent report admitted so much as the smallest possibility that anything useful ever came from the programs, the headline would have been “Senate Committee: Torture Works!”

In this sense, the traps into which both the Senate staff and the Rolling Stone editors fell are a predictable and unhappy result of life in a swift and unreflective era. Slogans have always been easier to repeat than arguments; the danger now is that we have come to confuse the two. “Zero Dark Thirty” tumbled from Oscar contention after critics questioned the film’s assertion that the detainee program helped track down Osama bin Laden.

But this reaction confuses the narrative with the reality. To this day, CIA veterans insist that this aspect of the film was accurate. Maybe they’re wrong. Because I think the detainee program was immoral and a grave mistake, I’d very much like them to be wrong. Still, I have no principled basis to insist that they’re wrong simply because it helps my argument. Put otherwise, offered a choice between those who say the programs helped and those who say the programs didn’t, I shouldn’t base my decision on which side I want to be right.

Alas, the narrative is constructed otherwise. Most of today's narratives are. Thus early critics of the Rolling Stone story were treated as doubting not the story, but the narrative. If they thought this particular exercise of journalist craft seemed full of errors and unlikelihoods, they were minimizing the problem of sexual assault itself. This approach is a classic example of the fallacy of the false dilemma: There is actually no inconsistency in believing simultaneously that sexual assault is a serious problem and that this particular account doesn’t hang together. Similarly, there is no inconsistency in simultaneously believing that the detainee program was wrong and accepting that it might occasionally have produced actionable intelligence. It’s only our own lack of moral seriousness that causes us to confuse the two.

When disputes over facts are misconstrued as disputes over principles, the entire project of Enlightenment democracy it at risk. The liberalism of the Enlightenment rested critically on the supposition that agreement on the facts was a separate process from agreement on the values to be applied to them. The social theorist Karl Mannheim, in “Ideology and Utopia,” argued that we would never be able to separate the two, that we would always wind up seeing the facts through the lens of our preformed ideologies. Thus liberal democracy, in the Enlightenment sense, was bound to fail.

Let me here avoid the false dilemma. As a believer in democracy, I want Mannheim to be wrong. But our increasing elevation of preformed narrative over hard-eyed pursuit of truth suggests that he may turn out to be right.

(Updates second paragraph to clarify committee's explanation for not interviewing CIA officials.)

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net