Amy Davidson Sorkin
Keeping Quiet About Davis
February 28, 2011
The column by the Times
Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, on the case of Raymond Davis
—the man who reportedly had some connection to the C.I.A. and is now in Pakistani custody after killing two men who, he has said, he thought were thieves—is genuinely puzzling. The Times reported last week
that it had kept silent about Davis’s C.I.A. connection. Brisbane attempted to explain why. Here are the key passages:
The Times jumped on the story, but on Feb. 8, the State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, contacted the executive editor, Bill Keller, with a request. “He was asking us not to speculate, or to recycle charges in the Pakistani press,” Mr. Keller said. “His concern was that the letters C-I-A in an article in the NYT, even as speculation, would be taken as authoritative and would be a red flag in Pakistan.”
Mr. Crowley told me the United States was concerned about Mr. Davis’s safety while in Pakistani custody. The American government hoped to avoid inflaming Pakistani opinion and to create “as constructive an atmosphere as possible” while working to resolve the diplomatic crisis.
acceded to the Obama Administration’s wishes, as did the Washington Post
and the A.P. Brisbane concludes that “the Times did the only thing it could do,” even though “in practice, this meant its stories contained material that, in the cold light of retrospect, seems very misleading.” So the “only thing” the Times
could do was be “misleading”? That question contains a lot of sub-questions. Here are some:
What was the risk to Davis, exactly? He is in the custody of Pakistan, one of our allies. It is not like he’s being held hostage in a cave somewhere, or on the run. One suggestion, laid out in the Post
, is that a prison guard might have killed him out of anger; the Post mentions that other prisoners had, in fact, been killed by guards in the facility he was held in. Were those prisoners also working for the C.I.A.? (Or whatever agency Davis was affiliated with, as an “operative” or a contractor—his exact status is still not clear.) There was rage, maybe even life-threatening rage, at Davis in Pakistan even when the U.S. was pretending he was an ordinary diplomat—pulling out a Glock on the streets of Lahore and shooting two people, then claiming immunity, will do that. He was burned in effigy before the Times
used “the letters C-I-A.” One could just as easily argue that news that the American media covered up for Davis would make the Pakistani public even madder, and less willing to trust American justice and intentions, encouraging vigilantes.
(In any event, after the Guardian
went with the story, the Administration told the Times
that it needed twenty-four hours to get the Pakistanis to put him in a safer facility; if it took the Guardian
story to persuade the Pakistanis, could one in the Times
have facilitated a move weeks earlier?)
Or is the idea that the attacker wouldn’t be a rogue guard, but an Pakistani government operative sent to take him out, or maybe torture him for intelligence? There are a couple of problems with that: (a) the Pakistani government, if not the public, seems to have known who Davis was without American newspapers telling it; and (b) if we think that Pakistani security services torture or kill people because they are C.I.A. operatives, then why are we giving them so much taxpayer money?
Or would the story endanger his safety because it would undermine a claim to diplomatic immunity, exposing him to years in a Pakistani prison (not so good for one’s health) or even capital punishment? If so, does that count as a good reason? I am not sure of the points of international law here, and have read conflicting assertions about what Davis’s standing was, and exactly what sort of immunity
he might have been eligible for. I also am not sure of the penalty for double murder in Pakistan. But if Davis isn’t entitled to diplomatic immunity then he isn’t entitled to diplomatic immunity. Do we believe that it’s the role of newspapers to pretend that he is, if he isn’t—to help the government make legally and factually false claims? (Is the press asked to suppress damaging details in cases of Americans charged with murders abroad who aren’t C.I.A. operatives?) And wouldn’t doing so endanger actual diplomats whose claims would, in the future, be treated with greater skepticism?
Maybe the danger was not to Davis but to the C.I.A.’s ability to operate with impunity within Pakistan. But that’s not the argument Brisbane presents, and has its own problems. (Is it the job of newspapers to create “as constructive an atmosphere as possible” for anything the government wants to do?) Anyway, the damage had been done by the incident itself; it was really a matter of making sense of the wreckage. And Davis was not arrested for spying but for killing people recklessly; the widow of one, an eighteen-year old, killed herself. Do journalists need, at the cost of their credibility, to deny these people’s survivors a day in court?
Maybe the Administration had good answers, and a better explanation of the danger to Davis; but those answers weren’t in the Times.
- Who was the intended audience, or, rather, non-audience, for the silence? Put differently, who was this supposed to be kidding? Crowley, according to the Times, was not asking the paper to suppress something that hadn’t been reported but, as Keller put it, “not to speculate or recycle charges in the Pakistani press.” So news outlets were asked not to tell Americans, among others, what Pakistanis were already reading? (It is also interesting that this involved elevating the “authoritative” Times and disparaging the Pakistani press—which was actually ahead on the story.) Was the government, beyond its protestations about Davis’s safety, concerned about how this might affect American views of our wars, or cause people here to question elements of our involvement in Pakistan or our use of private contractors? (Davis had worked until some point for Blackwater, the company now known as Xe.) This relates to the next question:
- How did agreeing to the Administration’s request affect not only what the Times, the Post, and the A.P. revealed, but how they reported the story? When Crowley asked the Times “not to speculate or recycle charges,” did he say the charges were false, or did he confirm them—was the problem that the speculation was unsubstantiated, or that it was true? Is “recycle” in this case a synonym for “follow up on,” “investigate,” or “pursue”? (The Times doesn’t exactly say what the paper knew when, although it quotes Washington editor Dean Baquet as saying that it had the information it needed “sometime before” the Guardian ran its piece.) Does feigning ignorance encourage actual ignorance—if nothing else as a way to avoid being “misleading” about what you do and don’t know? One would like to hear much more about how these news outlets, even just internally, interrogated the official story.
The restrictions may have hindered the paper in conveying just why Pakistanis were so angry. That is something that Americans—the families of our soldiers on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and really everyone—deserve, and even need, to know. Brisbane did not accomplish that here, either. How is it that, in an eleven-hundred-word column that includes a quote from Bob Woodward about how “I learned a long time ago, humanitarian considerations first, journalism second,” there wasn’t room to mention that the death toll in the incident was not two, but three? After shooting the two men, Davis called our consulate for help, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle slammed its way through Lahore to get to him, driving recklessly, going up streets the wrong way, breaking traffic laws. Because this is real life and not an action movie, the car hit and killed a bystander. (I live in New York, a city in which, for years, the easiest way for the tabloids to excite rage was to point to diplomats who used their immunity to get out of parking tickets; how would that kind of driving go over here?)
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Brisbane called this “a brutally hard call.” And, again, the Obama Administration may have told the Times things that the paper still hasn’t told its readers, which would make all of this seem a little more sensible than it does now. But that’s not what we’re left with. What we get, instead, is Brisbane’s credo: “Editors don’t have the standing to make a judgment that a story—any story—is worth a life.” It’s not so simple. Unless you are only covering the Oscars, you get into areas in which lives can be changed by your reporting, or your failure to report. You can’t simply abdicate. For one thing, doing so may cost more lives: reporting, say, that bad training or poor command judgment caused soldiers to kill civilians may make people angry at American soldiers, but it might lead to changes that keep more civilians from being killed, and stave off a subsequent cycle of anger and retribution. Our best defense when our government does something wrong is that we hold it accountable—that an eighteen-year-old widow can trust that we care, a little, about her abandonment. That is the nature of our system, and what prevents rage at an American operative from becoming rage broadly directed at “Americans.”
Also: governments are lazy, and politicians confuse risks to their careers with risks to their countries. If they can prevent the publication of embarrassing stories simply by repeating the word “danger,” then they will misuse and overuse that tactic. The press can’t let that happen. It’s a matter of responsibility.
Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images.
Amy Davidson Sorkin
has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014. She has been at the magazine since 1995, and, as a senior editor for many years, focussed on national security, international reporting, and features.
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