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Monday, June 4, 2012

CNN's Erin Burnett jokes about torture at Guantanamo Bay

On Thursday, May 31, OutFront, the CNN show hosted by Erin Burnett, ran the latest installment of a periodic segment called "Seriously?!" examining what the program considers to be unusual news stories. This particular edition focused on the reported use of children's songs at Guantanamo Bay.

"The Pentagon confirmed today something many of us have suspected for years," Ms. Burnett began. "According to the Defense Department's John Kirby, music is regularly used to punish prisoners at Guantanamo Bay."

She then played a clip from the press conference Mr. Kirby led on May 31st. The relevant portion is below:
Q: On the report this morning that some of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay have been subjected to hearing songs from Sesame Street, first of all, can you comment on that? And second, if it's true, what would you say about the characterization of some who call this torture?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, look, there's been several investigations done about the use of interrogation techniques down there at Guantanamo Bay, and particularly the use of music as incentives or disincentives between 2004, 2008, that time frame. And universally, the -- these investigations have shown and leadership has revealed that music can be used as both an incentive and a disincentive. It depends on how you use it. I don't know. I can't say with any specificity what type of music has been used in the past or is even being used now. But we -- I will reiterate that we don't mistreat detainees. That's the policy. We rigorously follow that policy. We do not torture, and we do not abuse our detainees at all. We subscribe to the law and to humane treatment. So it -- but yes, music is used, again, both in a -- in a positive way and as a disincentive. But I wouldn't get into characterizing exactly what type of music is being used.
Q: But are you --
CAPT. KIRBY: But we do not -- we do not torture.
Q: Music from the Barney show, if not Sesame Street?
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't know what the playlist is.
Q: Can you tell me how to get -- how to get to Sesame Street? (Laughter.)
CAPT. KIRBY: Next question, please.
Ms. Burnett returned to camera while repressing a laugh. "That's right," she said. "It is believed the Pentagon forced prisoners at Gitmo to listen to Barney for 24 straight hours. According to a U.S. service member involved in psychological operations, quote, 'your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken.'" She continued: "That sounds intense. I mean, these are songs meant for children, right? But after a quick listen, I'm sure you'll agree, the estimation isn't very far off."

Ms. Burnett then played a clip of Barney singing, followed by an audio and video loop of his laughter. Ms. Burnett did an impression of the laughter herself. "Yeah, that's Barney," she said. "The Pentagon says, that's not torture. But seriously, you drop that laugh on me for a few hours and I'd confess to just about anything, whether I did it or not. Seriously."

The use of music on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay was first reported nearly a decade ago. In 2003, for example, this BBC article stated the following:
Uncooperative prisoners are being exposed for prolonged periods to tracks by rock group Metallica and music from children's TV programmes Sesame Street and Barney in the hope of making them talk. 
The US's Psychological Operations Company (Psy Ops) said the aim was to break a prisoner's resistance through sleep deprivation and playing music that was culturally offensive to them. 
However, human rights organisation, Amnesty International, said such tactics may constitute torture - and coalition forces could be in breach of the Geneva Convention. 
Sergeant Mark Hadsell, of Psy Ops, told Newsweek magazine: "These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them." 
..."In training, they forced me to listen to the Barney "I Love You" song for 45 minutes. I never want to go through that again," one US operative told the magazine.
Similarly, in 2008, an Associated Press article reported the use of music at Guantanamo Bay in this way:
Blaring from a speaker behind a metal grate in his tiny cell in Iraq, the blistering rock from Nine Inch Nails hit Prisoner No. 200343 like a sonic bludgeon. 
...The auditory assault went on for days, then weeks, then months at the U.S. military detention center in Iraq. Twenty hours a day. AC/DC. Queen. Pantera. The prisoner, military contractor Donald Vance of Chicago, told The Associated Press he was soon suicidal. 
The tactic has been common in the U.S. war on terror, with forces systematically using loud music on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, "to create fear, disorient ... and prolong capture shock." ... FBI agents stationed at Guantanamo Bay reported numerous instances in which music was blasted at detainees, saying they were "told such tactics were common there." 
According to an FBI memo, one interrogator at Guantanamo Bay bragged he needed only four days to "break" someone by alternating 16 hours of music and lights with four hours of silence and darkness. ... 
Not all of the music is hard rock. Christopher Cerf, who wrote music for "Sesame Street," said he was horrified to learn songs from the children's TV show were used in interrogations.
"I wouldn't want my music to be a party to that," he told AP. 
Bob Singleton, whose song "I Love You" is beloved by legions of preschool Barney fans, wrote in a newspaper opinion column that any music can become unbearable if played loudly for long stretches. 
"It's absolutely ludicrous," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?"
On May 30 of this year, Al Jazeera released a 47-minute documentary report revisiting the topic. An associated article noted:
In 2003, it transpired that US intelligence services had tortured detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib with music from Sesame Street. 
Human rights researcher Thomas Keenan explains: "Prisoners were forced to put on headphones. They were attached to chairs, headphones were attached to their heads, and they were left alone just with the music for very long periods of time. Sometimes hours, even days on end, listening to repeated loud music." 
"The music was so loud," says Moazzam Begg, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram. "And it was probably some of the worst torture that they faced."
(In 2010, Mr. Begg, who is a British citizen, was one of fifteen former detainees to receive a settlement award from the British government following suits he and others filed accusing Britain of involvement in torture.)

The documentary follows Mr. Cerf, the composer, as he explores the question of how music - including his music - was used in interrogations. It reviews the interrogation guidelines that were in place at the C.I.A., guidelines put together by the agency's Office of Medical Services. This included the playing of music at 100 decibles - "as loud as a jackhammer," the video states - for up to two hours.

At one point in the film, Mr. Cerf speaks with Chris Arendt, who was a guard at Guantanamo. (He is no longer in the U.S. military.) Mr. Arendt describes what he called "insidious psychological techniques" that he witnessed being used on detainees, including leaving them in stress positions for long periods of time and exposing them "to music that's way too loud, that they hate on many cultural bases" in order to "break them down."

Having considered all of this, I believe Ms. Burnett's report is problematic on two fronts. The first problem is journalistic. Ms. Burnett was significantly misrepresenting the ways in which childrens' music - and, by implication, music in general - was used in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. The BBC and Al Jazeera articles linked to above make clear that prisoners were subjected to rock music played at high volume. Those articles don't specifically state the volume at which childrens' songs were played, but the AP article - citing the British human rights group Reprieve - includes songs from both Barney and Sesame Street in a list of music that the AP describes as having been "blasted" at prisoners. Furthermore, the Al Jazeera and BBC articles discuss the use of childrens' music within a broader context of music chosen for content and played at volumes likely to produce sleep deprivation, disorientation, and psychological distress.

What all of this means is that it is incorrect to imply, as Ms. Burnett did, that detainees were simply subjected to repeated playings of songs from Barney. That may be true - but it also appears that this and other music was played for long enough periods and at high enough volume as to be literally torturous, according to critics of the policy.

Ms. Burnett's second failing is an ethical one. I don't mean to argue that a single three minute segment should be taken as being representative of the overall quality or ethos of a news program. That said, Ms. Burnett chose to turn torture into a joke. The idea of torturing prisoners is morally troubling enough on its own. But the further idea that it is amusing when such tactics are used to produce false confessions is even more disturbing. There is nothing humorous about Ms. Burnett's statement that she would confess to false charges if forced to listen to songs from Barney played repeatedly. This is especially true considering the fact that interrogation policies at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere may very well have produced bad information and baseless confessions. (A very brief search revealed the the case of Mohammed Jawad, who confessed to throwing a grenade at U.S. soldiers after "Afghan interrogators threatened to kill Jawad and his family if he did not confess to playing a role in the attack," and the case of Fouad Al Rabiah, a Guantanamo detainee who offered "confessions [that] were so inconsistent or implausible even his interrogators did not believe them."

Considering all of these realities, there is no reason why Ms. Burnett should have reported on this deeply significant issue in such an inaccurate and morally dubious way.

While I'm passing judgement above, I don't bring up these points in order to merely criticize. Instead, I hope to produce a dialogue. I am genuinely interested to know why Ms. Burnett and her producers felt that the approach they took to this story was appropriate. Perhaps in retrospect they don't - or maybe they think I'm misrepresenting their work or intentions. On Friday, June 1st, I reached out to Ms. Burnett's press contact seeking comment. I haven't heard back yet, but I'll keep trying, and I will update this post with any information I receive.

(An update is available here.)

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