Did PBS Bury an Expose on Torture?

"Torturing Democracy" premieres on affiliates as PBS ducks the torture issue.

Update: The Expose on Tonight's Torture Exposé

This spring, PBS’s distinguished Frontline series aired a mildly critical account of the lead-up to the Iraq War entitled “Bush’s War.” As the airing of the program was announced, the Bush Administration proposed to slash public funding for PBS by roughly half for 2009, by 56% for 2010 and eliminating funding entirely for 2011. Did PBS get the message? Perhaps.

According to producer Sherry Jones, PBS told her that “no time slot could be found for the documentary before January 21, 2009”—the day after Bush leaves office.

On Thursday evening WNET in New York will air an important new documentary by Emmy and Dupont Award winning producer Sherry Jones entitled “Torturing Democracy.” It appears on WNET and several other affiliates independently because PBS would not run the show—at least not until President Bush has left office. The show delivers impressively on a promise to “connect the dots in an investigation of interrogations of prisoners in U.S. custody that became ‘at a minimum, cruel and inhuman treatment and, at worst, torture’” (quoting Alberto Mora, who served as general counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, and features in an interview). In one dramatic scene, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage describes being waterboarded as part of a training program he went through before being sent to Vietnam. Did he consider waterboarding to be torture, Armitage was asked? “Absolutely. No question.” And he continued, “There is no question in my mind—there's no question in any reasonable human being, that this is torture. I'm ashamed that we're even having this discussion.” Watch the footage here:

No one who has seen this dramatic documentary is likely to buy into the “rotten apples” narrative any longer.

Which may help explain why PBS appears to be suffering from acute corporate indigestion over the work. The project was first offered to PBS in September 2007, with the representation that it would be available to air after May 2008. It was completed and circulated to PBS decision makers on schedule in May of this year. Their response? According to producer Sherry Jones, PBS told her that “no time slot could be found for the documentary before January 21, 2009”—the day after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney leave office. Does that reflect concern that PBS would face retaliation from the Bush Administration for airing the program? I put that question to John Wilson, PBS’s Senior Vice President for Program, who didn’t respond following multiple inquiries. But January 21 is a Wednesday, and to me the only obvious reason for its selection is regime change.

The producers decided to offer the show directly to local affiliates. As of this writing, roughly sixty-five percent of the PBS network have signed on to run the program, including the flagship New York (WNET) and Boston (WGBH) stations. Curiously, however, just one major player in the network has declined: Washington affiliate WETA. The program manager for WETA also told the producers tha t the station simply had “no free time” until early next year. It’s worth noting that WETA’s CEO is Sharon Percy Rockefeller. She is the daughter of one senator and the wife of another—Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller. While neither Rockefeller nor Congressional oversight play any role in the documentary, there can be little doubt but that it raises painful questions for him. As public demands for accountability over torture policy rise, both Administration critics and defenders point to the role of the “Gang of Eight”—of which Rockefeller was one of the most prominent members. According to the Administration, they were briefed in detail about torture policies and acquiesced. Rockefeller handwrote a letter of protest after one briefing concerning the Administration’s broad-based surveillance program and locked a copy in his safe—but there is no suggestion he did anything comparable when torture was the issue. If the next Administration opts to fully air the dark secrets surrounding the Bush Administration torture policies—as many now anticipate—Rockefeller may well have reason to be concerned about what will come out.

Does this explain why WETA alone among the major PBS affiliates has opted not to broadcast this important documentary? WETA station manager Kevin Harris likewise didn’t respond to requests for comment in which I posed that question.

The developments surrounding “Torturing Democracy” fit a pattern. In late May, NPR’s Nina Totenberg secured a U.S. broadcast exclusive for Philippe Sands’s book Torture Team, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The Sands book took a close look at the Administration’s claim that the impetus for harsh new interrogation practices came from the bottom up—from interrogators at Guantánamo—and demonstrated that this was false. Instead, he showed, the practices had their origins near the top of the Administration in Washington, among a group of senior lawyers that called itself the War Council. Totenberg prepared a piece for Morning Edition that was instead put up on the NPR website and released in a minor news show.

Producer Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side” was originally set to run this fall on the Discovery Channel, but the company-- then seeking SEC approvals in connection with a proposal to go public—decided to shelve the show until the Bush Administration left office. The movie went on to receive the Oscar for Best Documentary and was premiered last week, after HBO acquired the rights.

When pictures of detainee abuse first circulated in April 2004, the Administration insisted that the abuse was unauthorized and was all the product of a “few rotten apples,” in Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable phrase. Four and a half years later, however, a mountain of evidence has risen against the Administration’s characterization. Most recently, Condoleezza Rice and her lawyer have confirmed their participation in National Security Council meetings in which individual torture programs were approved for prisoners. Jane Mayer published The Dark Side establishing that Alberto Gonzales and other lawyers within the administration warned that the practices could be viewed as war crimes. And Bart Gellman published Angler, documenting the leading role played by Vice President Cheney and his lawyer David Addington in the introduction of torture techniques. Simultaneously with the release of “Torturing Democracy,” its producers have also published for the first time a damning document issued by military authorities at Guantánamo clarifying the highly coercive techniques—regularly identified by the United States as torture when used by other nations—which the Bush Administration had approved to use on prisoners held in the war on terror. “Torturing Democracy” provides a look at the evolution and application of the new techniques from an insider’s perspective. The most impressive of the interviewees are high-level figures in the Defense Department, Department of State and Department of Justice who became involved in the issue.

“Torturing Democracy” runs on Thursday, October 16 at 9:00 pm on New York’s WNET. It can be viewed online at torturingdemocracy.org, and other broadcast times and locations can also be found on the website.

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We will update this post if and when Messrs. Wilson and Harris respond to the questions posed or give us other comments.