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60 Minutes Up to its Old Tricks

April 7, 2008


CBS's 60 Minutes offered up a cleverly deceptive story that makes the U.S. government and military look extremely evil, building on a narrative that continues to damage American interests at home and abroad. The story, shown on March 30, was presented in such a way as to convince the audience that it has discovered some awful truths about a man held prisoner in Afghanistan and later Guantanamo, and finally set free after years of torture and abuse. The problem is that CBS left out or glossed over significant information that might have made viewers wonder if this man was really telling the truth. Clearly 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley wanted the viewers to believe he was. But the truth might not be so clear.

The man is Murat Kurnaz, a German of Turkish descent, who apparently had begun studying Islam in Germany before the horrific acts of radical Islamic terror that occurred in this country on September 11, 2001. According to his story, he had planned a trip to Pakistan to study his religion before the events of 9/11 occurred, and went even after they had. He says that in late 2001, he was removed from a bus taking him to the airport in Pakistan as he was preparing to return home, by Pakistani police, because he was light-skinned, and obviously of European descent.

This, he says, was the start of a nightmare of torture and abuse that lasted years, and even years after the FBI and American intelligence agencies knew he wasn't guilty of anything. He was held as an enemy combatant and released from prison after nearly five years, at the request of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Now he has written a book¯Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo¯ which CBS seems more than happy to promote. He has claimed he was a victim of waterboarding, electric shock, days of being hung up by his arms, and humiliation by being taunted by scantily clad women. He also says he witnessed the Koran being desecrated in front of him. These last allegations weren't mentioned by 60 Minutes.

During the course of the report, 60 Minutes flashed some documents and carefully pulled out some apparently damning quotes, but a closer examination raises disturbing questions about CBS's reporting. For instance, Pelley says that Kurnaz's lawyer obtained documents from military prosecutors that claim he had consorted with someone who was a suicide bomber, but who was actually alive. Pelley asked with obvious incredulity, "you either are or are not a suicide bomber, right?" Well, not necessarily. How about someone who provides the explosives, the belt to strap it on, and the indoctrination that leads someone to commit such acts? In other words, this suicide/homicide bomber more likely just sends people further down the pecking order to carry out such deeds. But in this case it appears this person was confused with someone else with the same surname. Besides, the document says only that the person is "possibly" a suicide bomber, and you would only see that if you paused your TV recording at the just the right place.

Pelley also stated that the FBI thought that Kurnaz was an "innocent man with no connection to terrorism." But while the FBI document, which was posted on the CBS website, actually said that "there is no investigative interest in this detainee," it also said, "Although he has denied being a member of the Jama'at al-Tabligh, his associates, travel and religious studies contradict this denial. For these reasons, Karnaz is believed to pose a [redaction of two words] to the national security of the United States and its allies if released." Jama'at al-Tabligh is generally described as an Islamic missionary group.

Another document, which CBS posts on its website, is the response from the Department of Defense to the 60 Minutes report. This is the most damning proof of CBS's manipulation. Scott Pelley quotes the report as saying that the claims of torture are "false" and "absurd," but he doesn't mention the basis for their denials. What the DOD points out are examples of evidence that Kurnaz is lying. CBS makes no mention of them. The statement says that "many of his claims can be easily refuted based on publicly available documents."

The statement goes on to cite his complaint that "he was grossly underweight while at Guantanamo because he was deprived of quality food. In fact, according to the list of heights and weights of detainees released by the Department of Defense and available on the internet, Mr. Kurnaz stayed, for the most part, well above his ideal body weight contrary to his claims. Publicly available photos released from his reunion also visually indicate a man of robust health at the end of his detention." Plus, the statement adds, "During his Combatant Status Review Tribunal testimony, Mr. Kurnaz never mentions a single allegation of mistreatment, neither during his time in Kandahar nor in Guantanamo."

So why not report on any of these charges that might impeach Kurnaz's credibility? Because the story wouldn't have the desired impact: To indict the U.S. government and the Bush Administration for their actions during this very difficult war we are in.

I have no way of knowing whether this man is guilty of seeking to be part of terrorist war against the U.S. Part of the reason he came under suspicion, according to Pelley, was that his mother had told German authorities that her son "had become more religious, had grown a beard, and was attending a new mosque. Schoolmates said that Kurnaz might have been headed to Afghanistan," raising suspicions about what he was up to.

None of this would justify in any way the sort of treatment that Kurnaz claims happened to him. But there are two distinct issues here. One is how aggressive the U.S. can and should be in interrogating detainees. The other is the issue of what legal avenues should be provided to enemy combatants. But the issue with this 60 Minutes story is how it was reported.

Pelley cites others' claims to have also been tortured, but he has no names. And that some U.S. military officials acknowledged that such torture took place, though again, no names. And no specificity about what these U.S. soldiers said. Said Pelley: "Kurnaz isn't alone in these allegations. Other freed prisoners have described electric shocks at Kandahar. And even U.S. troops have admitted beating prisoners who were hanging by their arms. Kurnaz's story fits a pattern." This is apparently the basis for believing Kurnaz's story. No names, no facts.

What fits a pattern is 60 Minutes' effort to discredit the war, the administration, and the U.S. standing around the world. 60 Minutes had a story they wanted to tell, and they were perfectly willing to leave out key facts that would clearly have influenced what people thought about this man. They show parts of documents to the millions of viewers who watch the show each week, and leave others buried on their website for a fraction of the people to dig out the rest of story.

Ironically this show aired the same day that the remains of Army Staff Sergeant Matt Maupin were publicly identified after being discovered. He was captured four years ago this week, and, according to this TV station report from Maupin's hometown of Cincinnati, "the Arab television network Al-Jazeera aired a videotape showing Maupin sitting on the floor surrounded by five masked men holding automatic rifles. On June 28, a video purporting to show his execution was released, but Army officials said the quality was so poor that it could not be verified." This was a stark, timely reminder of the potential consequences of irresponsible reporting like this 60 Minutes story.

Copyright ©2008 Roger Aronoff

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.

 


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