Dismembering the "Torture Narrative"

The “torture narrative” has taken another blow. As you may recall, Philippe Sands’ Torture Team (or perhaps more accurately the excerpts that appeared in Vanity Fair) proved so persuasive to Jerry Nadler (D-NY) that he convened a hearing of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Liberties (under Rep. John Conyers’ (D-MI) House Committee on the Judiciary) to demand the truth about the alleged illegal torture of detainees under the Bush administration. On July 15th, one of the main culprits in Sands’ narrative, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, appeared with Sands himself to testify. Part of the logic of this exercise was that Feith had given Sands an interview for his book, and so how could he object to what Sands said? After all, like any responsible author, Sands was only repeating Feith’s own words. This was Sands’ big chance to destroy his credibility, with the added weight of a Congressional subcommittee behind him.

Not so fast, it seems.

In their July encounter, rather than being the victim, Feith turned the tables and ripped Sands for the “weave” of distortions and inaccuracies that makes up Torture Team. He detailed how Sands edited his statements and even made others up (notably regarding Article 3 of the Geneva Convention). Feith then requested Sands make the full transcript of their interview publicly available, and it is now up on the Vanity Fair site.

It makes for interesting reading. There is no mention of Article 3. The “gotcha” statements that were the foundation of Sands’ case against Feith are so obviously doctored and recast to fit his case as to be laughable. Of course, a discerning reader might have suspected this from the get-go as in this day and age there are a number of ways to make primary documents publicly available–that is if you are not afraid of such scrutiny. Sands chose not to avail himself of any of them until publicly shamed into it. But given their busy schedules, it is understandable that Chairman Nadler and his Congressional cohorts who have been so eager to haul high-profile witnesses like Feith up to the Hill and harangue them, Vanity Fair in hand, have not had time to actually check Sands’ sources.

Now Feith has done them a favor by pushing for the release of the transcript so they can see for themselves the house of cards on which this case is built. Feith has followed up with a letter to Chairman Nadler asking him “to acknowledge formally that Mr. Sands gave an untrue account of that interview, an account on which he built a false accusation against me of a war crime,” and documenting the discrepancies between the transcript and Sands’ story. As usual, Feith goes to the trouble of providing specific citations to support his case. We can hope that Mr. Nadler will give the same attention to this letter that he did to the Vanity Fair article, and you can call his office and encourage him to do so (202-225-5635).

While it is unfortunate that an able public servant like Doug Feith needs to spend his time defending himself from these cheap attacks instead of channeling his energies into something more productive, it is refreshing to see a vigorous counter-offensive against the likes of Phillipe Sands. Demonizing public service with careless, ill-founded accusations of “torture” to hawk books and magazines is a dangerous game–and Chairman Nadler and his subcommittee owe it to all of us to hold those who play it to the highest standard.