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AIM's Game of Semantics

Accuracy in Media's Cliff Kincaid claims that the CIA is not operating secret prisons, even though they were secret and people were imprisoned.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 9/26/2006

H.L. Mencken said one time, "When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about money,' it's about money." And when you hear somebody say, "This is not about sex," it's about sex.

-- Sen. Dale Bumpers, during President Clinton's
Senate impeachment trial

* * *

When you hear Accuracy in Media claim that its attacks on stories about the CIA's secret prisons are not a question of semantics, it's a question of semantics.

AIM has been on this for quite some time. As ConWebWatch has detailed, AIM's Cliff Kincaid has been targeting the Washington Post's Dana Priest since last November, when she first reported the existence of secret CIA-operated detention facilities for suspected terrorists in Europe, attacks that increased when Priest won the Pulitzer Prize in April for her reporting. Kincaid has asserted that her stories are "false," though he has offered little evidence to support that claim. Kincaid's main objection appears to be the lack of on-the-record sources to back up her reporting, though there has been little in the way of official denials of Priest's account of the secret prisons.

Related articles on ConWebWatch:

AIM's River of Denial

Accuracy in Spin

Aiming to Smear

Kincaid has also objected to the use of the term "secret prisons" for no real apparent reason other than that it sounds harsh. When writing about it, he repeatedly puts the term in scare quotes.

Kincaid's attacks cranked up once again when President Bush, in announcing a proposed bill to create a military tribunal for terrorism suspects, acknowledged the existence of the prisons.

In a Sept. 7 AIM column (repeated in a Sept. 19 AIM Report), Kincaid launched a semantics game, pointing out that Bush never said used the term "secret prison":

Leave it to Bob Schieffer, the former CBS Evening News anchorman, to admit the truth as he was being interviewed about the speech by new anchor Katie Couric on the Wednesday broadcast. "He never used the term 'prison,'" said Schieffer.

But if the President didn't use the word, then how can the media report that he did so? It's called "interpretive reporting." It's been taught in journalism classes for decades. 

Kincaid will admit, though, that "a secret CIA program to interrogate terrorists, including the architects of 9/11, did exist" and that "the President acknowledged that the CIA has maintained an interrogation 'program' in which "a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States," but Kincaid never says what the difference is between that and a "secret prison," except for calling the term part of Priest's "tabloid treatment of the controversy":

The word "prison" in the American context suggests something like Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary with guards and towers that was closed in 1963. It held as many as 300 inmates. The number of detainees in the "secret prison" system, according to the Post itself, was about 100 "at various times," meaning the figure was usually much lower, and only 14, now transferred to Guantanamo, had remained.

In other words, Kincaid doesn't like the term "secret prison" because he thinks it's too sensational and harsh, even though the term, while not precise, is not inaccurate.

AIM does not have a history of demanding language precision when the subject is, say, the Clinton administration. For instance, a July 2004 column by Tom Barrett claimed that Clinton "was impeached because he lied under oath to a Federal Grand Jury. That's called perjury." In fact, according to a 1998 Slate article, "Perjury means (a) knowingly (b) making a false statement (c) about material facts (d) while under oath," adding, "Disingenuousness and misleading (but not technically inaccurate) answers are not perjury." Clinton was never charged with perjury in a criminal court; the House of Representatives passed only one of the two perjury-related impeachment charges against Clinton, and the Senate acquitted him of the charge. AIM failed to hold Barrett to the same standard it now applies to Priest.

Further, a January 2001 column by Kincaid and Reed Irvine declared: "Putting Clinton on trial for his perjury and obstruction of justice in the Lewinsky affair is a decision for Robert Ray to make." Kincaid and Irvine are calling Clinton a perjurer without qualification, which is factually inaccurate; to be precise, they should have added "alleged" before "perjury," at the very least.

Back to the "secret prisons." Kincaid continued:

The basic disclosures from Bush were not a surprise. ... [T]he issue wasn't whether CIA flights with suspected terrorists had landed in some foreign countries and that terrorists were detained on foreign soil. The issue is whether these constituted some "network" of "secret prisons" that rivaled those of the Soviet era. Priest exaggerated the program into something it was not in order to kill it.

Of course, given that the program was -- and, to a certain extent, still is -- secret, we have no idea whether it resembled a gulag or not. Again, as he did when he claimed the term was "tabloid"-like, Kincaid played the aesthetics card.

Kincaid also cited Priest's "alleged use of a pro-John Kerry fired CIA officer named Mary McCarthy," without noting that the Washington Post reported that the CIA "is not asserting that McCarthy was a key source of Priest's award-winning articles last year disclosing the agency's secret prisons."

Kincaid also repeated his claim that "AIM contended, and still does, that the story was essentially false," adding: "Some might say that it doesn't matter whether the terrorists were held at prisons, detention facilities, camps, or whatever. But it does matter if accuracy in the media is to be upheld and for Priest to retain her Pulitzer." But, again, Kincaid doesn't explicitly say why, beyond semantics and aesthetics, it's "false" to use the term "secret prison" when 1) it was secret and 2) people were imprisoned (let alone why he didn't insist on such precision when writing about Clinton).

In a "Cliff's Notes" addendum to the Sept. 19 AIM Report, Kincaid addressed the issue again:

OUR SECOND ARTICLE ON THE "SECRET PRISONS" CONTROVERSY MAY STRIKE SOME AS AN argument over semantics. But it's a matter of factual accuracy and honest journalism. I checked this matter with Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted the first World Trade Center bombers. I asked him about the media's use of the term "secret prisons" to describe the places where al-Qaeda terrorists had been kept. He agreed with me that the term, which was NOT used by President Bush in that speech, was unwarranted.

Kincaid neglects to mention that McCarthy, despite his prosecution credentials, is solidly in the conservative camp and is thus predisposed to support the Bush administration. In addition be being a contributor to National Review Online, he is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative group that lists Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp among its directors and Newt Gingrich, Gary Bauer, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle and William Kristol among its advisers.

But Kincaid's claim that the "secret prisons" debate is not "an argument over semantics" is, at best, disingenuous. It most certainly is an argument over semantics; why else would Kincaid be fighting it so hard? While it is not as precise as Kincaid seems to want it, the term, as we've noted, is not inaccurate. Kincaid would just rather prefer a euphemism with less negative connotations.

But wait: Doesn't AIM hate euphemistic language? Kincaid used to, at least in the past few months:

  • "The phrase, 'innovative financing mechanisms,' is a euphemism for global taxes." Kincaid, Sept. 21.
  • The WFA has openly stated that a "world federation," a euphemism for world government." -- Kincaid, Sept. 5.
  • "One big question is why Buffett decided to spend so much money on what Fortune magazine, which had an exclusive interview with Buffett about his future plans, euphemistically called "reproductive health, family planning, and pro-choice causes, and on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.' " -- Kincaid, July 28

It appears that when Kincaid has a point to make in order to help make the Bush administration look good, euphemisms are suddenly just fine.

Which is to say: It's totally, completely about semantics.

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