There's more than one side to this story

The complainant, Brian Waite, thought that when one side is right, you don’t have to hear from the other. He objected to Evan Solomon interviewing a former CIA official about the U.S. Senate report on the rendition program. There is such a thing as false equivalence. This was not an example of it.

COMPLAINT

You strongly objected to an interview with former CIA official Michael Scheuer on the December 9, 2014 edition of Power and Politics. He was interviewed as part of a package of coverage of the release of a United States Senate Intelligence Committee report about the treatment of terror suspects.

You consider Mr. Scheuer a war criminal who should face prosecution and thought it wrong to allow him to present his view of the report and to defend the rendition of prisoners and their brutal treatment. You characterized the decision to have Mr. Scheuer on the program as “some misguided, over-enthusiastic zeal to present all sides of an issue.” You added that he should not be given a platform to “proudly spout their involvement” in this program. You feel Mr. Scheuer’s activities place him on the same level as Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele so there is no justification for giving his views any exposure at all.

You think there is no need for balance or equivalence in this matter. You are concerned that by providing air time to one of the architects and implementers of the rendition program, CBC provided a platform for its justification. You responded to the program producer’s explanation in this way:

I am not satisfied with your rationalizations for providing a platform to a war criminal. Clearly CBC had researched his writings and pontifications in interviews and were aware of his position in regard to “enhanced interrogation” before inviting him; although surprisingly his candour on Power & Politics was particularly alarming given the relish with which he enjoyed admitting to his part in the formation of rendition policies and their early implementation. I must confess he is oddly compelling in his forthrightness, such that there are positions he takes on some issues with which I agree as, indeed, may you as well personally. But he does not just have an opinion on the issue of torture, he was a planner, instigator and active participant in it.

You also thought that it is important that there be more thorough fact-checking of the statements made by the interviewee. You point out that opinions should not be sought from someone whose facts are simply wrong.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of Power and Politics, Amy Castle, responded to your concerns. She explained that the Senate report had been released earlier the same day. She pointed out that program host Evan Solomon characterized it as a “blistering indictment” of the treatment of terror suspects in the wake of 9/11. She added the report was controversial so the program addressed various aspects of its release:

It was a shocking report in many respects and a highly controversial one. Program host Evan Solomon read the highlights. He spoke with CBC News Senior Washington Correspondent Neil Macdonald about the report’s conclusions and its political implications. He asked our regular Power Panel experts about the report’s implications for Canada. We heard from Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And we spoke with Mr. Scheuer, who had spent 22 years with the CIA and been involved in the program.

She disagreed with your position that it was wrong to interview Mr. Scheuer. She said that he was able to offer a “unique perspective” into the thinking at the CIA at the time the program began, and why some members of the intelligence community still think it is justified and necessary. She told you that CBC has an obligation through the Broadcast Act and its own journalistic standards to offer a range of views and perspectives on topical issues. She added:

However, it is not (sic) the CBC’s obligation to determine what is “truth” (a truly dangerous notion for any broadcaster), but only to present differing views fairly and accurately affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the nature or quality of the views expressed. And that is what we did here.

REVIEW

The Senate Intelligence Committee report was released toward the end of the last year. It is a redacted version of a much longer report that was 4 years and $40 million dollars in the making, according to some published accounts. Before its release there were intense arguments between the CIA and the committee about what could be declassified – a process that took nearly a year. When the report was finally released, it sparked a great deal of controversy.

Not surprisingly, members of the intelligence establishment, some of whom had been responsible for the program, defended its usefulness and disputed the findings of the report which stated little useful intelligence was gleaned through the use of torture. The Republicans on the committee issued their own dissenting report challenging the process and the analytic methodology. Some Republicans in Congress supported the report, many did not.

As you are aware, CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices has this to say about balance on matters of controversy.

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

It is hard to argue that it would be fair and balanced coverage to ignore the position of the people being criticized, or to fail to reflect the position of many legislators of one of the two parties that sit in the U.S. congress. You have raised the issue of false equivalence. In your view Mr. Scheuer is so absolutely wrong, if not criminal, that there is no balance necessary. That is an opinion you are certainly entitled to. It is not the issue at hand here. It would be hard to argue that taking into account the “relevance to the debate” of his position, and its relevance in the public discourse, it was wrong to interview him, or this was an example of false equivalence.

His was not the only element on the program – the highlights of the Committee’s findings were repeated several times. Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald talked about the political implications of the report’s conclusions and provided some context. He said the report concluded that prisoners had been tortured and explained the partisan nature of the responses.

That day’s Power Panel also commented on the report and talked about possible connections or implications for Canada. One of the panelists commented that the CIA ignored the rule of law, and observed that the fact there would be no prosecution of the perpetrators was a “sad day for the rule of law.”

The other important point you raise is about the obligation of the host to fact check what an interviewee is saying. Of course accuracy is a key requirement. But there is also a requirement to seek out alternate perspectives and views to help members of the public come to their own conclusions about what is true.

There is also a duty of a program host to allow interviewees to tell their version of events or the conclusions they draw from them. That is why another policy says that it is important to provide the information needed to assess the relevance and credibility of the person being interviewed. Mr. Solomon did so when he introduced Michael Scheuer as “a former intelligence officer whose responsibilities over his 22 years included being the first head of the CIA’s unit tracking Osama bin Laden.”

Mr. Solomon did not refute Mr. Scheuer’s statements in the specific, but he did challenge his view and presentation of the facts. He did so by returning to the major findings of the study: that the so called “harsh interrogation techniques” were far more brutal than was portrayed, that former President George W. Bush was never fully briefed, that the techniques didn’t work and at times provided erroneous information, and that some people were wrongfully detained. Here is a sample exchange:

Evan Solomon: What did you make of the report that came out today?

Michael Scheuer: Two things really. One, it is just a Democratic report written with the ACLU. It doesn’t reflect the Senate’s sense or it doesn’t reflect the Intelligence Committee’s sense. And the second thing is it’s a lie. Americans, Canadians, British people; French Germans they are alive because of the information that was gathered through this program over the course of a dozen years or more. And uh, Ms. Feinstein also is simply lying about her knowledge of it.

Solomon: The President has said there is no value in these types of interrogation – waterboarding, torture. He says nothing of value comes from them – why? Because people will say anything when they are getting tortured; and that’s the conclusion of the report. And you’re saying that’s a lie?

Scheuer: It is a lie. You should know by now you live so close to us that this president never utters a true word.

Solomon: But hang in there. I mean you’re making an allegation that this entire report and the president is basically saying that this kind of stuff doesn’t work, it’s not consistent with U.S. values. You’re saying what – torture works?

Scheuer: I’m saying this program was extraordinarily useful.

Most of the exchange is in this vein. Mr. Scheuer does not give much specific detail. I appreciate you thought it would have been better to refute his statements in more detail. The purpose of the interview was to hear the perspective, and to a degree to ask for accountability from someone who was involved in the rendition program. It was also appropriate to hear from someone who shared the same opinion as officials at the CIA and many Republicans in the U.S. congress. The interview did not violate CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman