Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in South Africa in 2013.
For years, President Barack Obama faced a tough problem: what to do about Alan Gross, the US subcontractor imprisoned in Cuba? And this dilemma encapsulated the larger puzzle of how to change US-Cuba relations, which have been frozen in a Cold War narrative.
The Cubans arrested Gross in 2009 and threw him in jail for distributing internet communications equipment under a program funded by the US Agency for International Development. The Cubans claimed he was a spy helping dissidents set up a secret communications system; the Obama administration insisted he was no such thing and was merely promoting free expression within Cuba's Jewish community. After Gross, who was in poor health, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the Cubans offered the Americans a deal: They would free Gross if the United States released the Cuban Five, five Cubans arrested for spying in 1998 in Florida and later convicted and given long prison sentences. (One of the five was paroled in 2011; another comes up for parole in February.)
The Obama White House balked at the deal, in part because it seemed to equate Gross' activity with espionage. For years, Gross and his family and his advocates slammed the administration for not doing enough to secure his freedom. Some privately complained bitterly about White House inaction. Gross, they noted, had been sent to Cuba on a mission for the United States—which might indeed have crossed a line—but was left to rot on his own. A year ago, Gross sent Obama a letter and said he feared he had been "abandoned." He called on the president to intervene personally to win his freedom.
But White House officials, insisting that Gross was not an intelligence asset, felt they could not accept the Cuban terms. There would be no spy swap. And the political uproar that accompanied the trade of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban commanders earlier this year hardly encouraged the administration to reconsider.
There was a deadlock. Yet someone on the Cuban or American side came up with an ingenious workaround. It turns out that a US intelligence asset—who provided intelligence that helped the United States apprehend the Cuban Five—had been held in a Cuban prison for years. This person could be the other end of the swap. Consequently, Obama agreed to trade the remaining Cuban Five for this person—which isn't a bad deal. And at the same time—coincidentally?—the Cubans released Gross on "humanitarian" grounds. Presto! On Wednesday morning, Gross boarded a US government plane and began the short flight back to the United States.
Gross' departure from Cuba did not only mark the end of his own tragic tale; it opened up a new era for US-Cuba relations. It was no secret that Obama and his foreign policy team had long been interested in a reset. The president cannot end the US embargo on Cuba on his own because it has been congressionally imposed. But he could expand exceptions to the embargo and widen a variety of paths for US-Cuban interactions, including cultural and commercial activity. With the Cubans holding an American citizen, the White House could not make a move in this direction.
But as Gross flew toward freedom, word leaked out that Obama, within hours, would announce he was taking steps to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba and set up an embassy in Havana. He also would allow Cuban Americans to send more money to relatives on the island nation and weaken provisions of the embargo to allow for more US travel to Cuba and increased (but still limited) US commerce there.
The Gross affair was never about just one man. And while Gross and his allies justifiably believe he was screwed over by Washington and treated as a pawn by the repressive government of Havana, Obama and his crew were eventually able to use this episode to mount a bold and larger move: shifting an ineffective policy that was a Cold War relic and pivoting to greater engagement with more of a chance of bringing democratic change and economic opportunity to Cuba. No doubt, the anti-Castro crusaders and their partners in Congress will howl. (How dare the president engage in…foreign relations!) But their protests will lack the punch of yesteryear. Obama has deftly engineered a historic change in policy. It's unfortunate Gross was caught in the middle and his life endangered. But an unfortunate pawn has been traded for a queen.
On Sunday, days after the release of the Senate torture report, former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press to defend the Bush-Cheney administration's use of harsh interrogation practices and to deny that these methods were torture. It was a typical no-retreat/no-surrender performance by Cheney. Asked by host Chuck Todd to define torture, Cheney repeatedly said torture was what happened on 9/11: "What the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans." That is, he defined torture as an act of mass violence that targets civilians.
This was a confusing, nonlogical talking point that Cheney gripped tightly. Yet on the specific matter of waterboarding—which he defended—Cheney simply resorted to false statements. He insisted that waterboarding "was not torture." Todd asked him, "When you say waterboarding is not torture, then why did we prosecute Japanese soldiers in World War II for waterboarding?"
For a lot of stuff. Not for waterboarding. They did an awful lot of other stuff…To draw some kind of moral equivalent between waterboarding judged by our Justice Department not to be torture and what the Japanese did with the Bataan Death March and the slaughter of thousands of Americans, with the rape of Nanking and all of the other crimes they committed, that's an outrage. It's a really cheap shot, Chuck, to even try to draw a parallel between the Japanese who were prosecuted for war crimes after World War II and what we did with waterboarding three individuals—
See what he did there? He denied the basis of Todd's question and then tried to make it seem silly: You can't equate what our guys did to the worst mass war crimes of World War II!
But Cheney was wrong. In 1947, the United States did charge a Japanese interrogator named Yukio Asano with war crimes, including waterboarding. In fact, waterboarding was one of the key crimes of which he was accused. Here's a portion of the indictment:
Charge: That between 1 April, 1943 and 31 August, 1944, at Fukoka Prisoner of War Branch Camp Number 3, Kyushu, Japan, the accused Yukio Asano, then a civilian serving as an interpreter with the Armed Forces of Japan, a nation then at war with the United States of America and its Allies, did violate the Laws and Customs of War.
Specification 1: That in or about July or August, 1943, the accused Yukio Asano, did willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Morris O. Killough, an American Prisoner of War, by beating and kicking him; by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils.
Other parts of the indictment also refer to other times Asano engaged in waterboarding. He was not indicted for the Bataan Death March. He was accused of a specific war crime: waterboarding.
Does Cheney know this? If he did, it probably wouldn't matter. During his interview, the ever-unrepentant Cheney refused to acknowledge any problems with the CIA detention and interrogation program that he and George W. Bush approved. He showed no concern when Todd noted that up to 25 percent of the detainees—some of whom were tortured—were wrongly held. Cheney insisted the extreme interrogation practices "absolutely did work," though the Senate report offers numerous examples of instances when torture did not yield pivotal information and did not contribute to thwarting attacks. Cheney asserted that waterboarding in the defense of the United States is no vice. And he kept thrashing at a straw man, accusing naive torture critics of equating these interrogation methods with the bloody deeds of Al Qaeda.
Asked about a passage of the report that clearly notes that the CIA provided Cheney with false information—that the use of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques helped the CIA stop a dirty bomb attack planned for Washington, DC—Cheney insisted that the implication that the CIA misled him "is just wrong." But he didn't say how he knew that. After all, did Cheney review the intelligence himself? (He didn't even read the full torture report—or the 528-page executive summary that was released.) And if the CIA had provided him inaccurate information touting the use of these interrogation techniques, how would he know that?
Given that the CIA screwed up regarding WMD in Iraq, Todd asked Cheney, why are you so confident that CIA officials were telling you the truth? Cheney had only this to say: I trusted them. Who's being naive now?
Finally, Todd asked if Cheney had any regrets about the Iraq War, noting that the invasion has led to chaos in the region. Big surprise: Cheney said no. He repeated the canard that Saddam Hussein "had a 10-year relationship with Al Qaeda." Once again, the 9/11 Commission found that there was no "collaborative operational relationship" between the Iraqi dictator and Al Qaeda, and the Institute for Defense Analyses, a research arm of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, studied a half million Iraqi documents and concluded there had been no direct connection between Osama bin Laden's gang and Baghdad.
"We did the right thing," Cheney told Todd. But for more than a decade now, Cheney has been peddling false information to the American public: Saddam was amassing WMD to use against the United States, Iraq had obtained aluminum tubes so it could create a nuclear weapon, a 9/11 ringleader met with an Iraqi intelligence officer. And now: Torture wasn't torture, and it worked. After all that—though he's still afforded elder statesman status by much of the media—he probably deserves derision more than rebuttal.
There is something more troubling in the Senate intelligence committee's torture report than the brutal depictions of the extreme (and arguably illegal) interrogation practices employed by CIA officers in the years after the 9/11 attacks: the lying.
The accounts of rectal rehydration, long-term sleep deprivation, waterboarding, forced standing (for days), and wrongful detentions are shocking. And the committee's conclusion that CIA torture yielded little, if any, valuable information (including during the hunt for Osama bin Laden) is a powerful counter to those who still contend that so-called enhanced interrogation techniques are effective. But the report presents a more basic and profound question that the nation still faces in the post-torture era: Can secret government work? In fact, while pundits and politicians are pondering the outrageous details of the executive summary, not many have realized that the report, in a way, presents a constitutional crisis.
The basic debate over torture has been settled. In his first days in office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order outlawing the use of these interrogation methods. Since then, the question has been what to reveal about the CIA's use of torture during the Bush-Cheney days and whether anyone ought to be prosecuted. But those matters, too, have been mostly resolved. The committee's report was released after a lengthy struggle between the CIA and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the panel; and in his first term, Obama ruled out criminal prosecutions of officials and officers engaged in sketchy counterterrorism actions in the previous administration. But there is a foundational issue that remains: how the US government conducts clandestine operations. The Senate torture report raises the possibility that much-needed checks and balances may not function because of CIA mendacity.
In a system of democratic government, if it is necessary for the military or the intelligence community (which both operate under the authority of the president) to mount covert operations to defend the nation, they are only permitted to do so with oversight from people elected by the voters—that is, members of Congress. The premise is simple: No government agency or employee can engage in clandestine activity, such as secret warfare, without some vetting. The vetters are surrogates for the rest of us. They get to see what's happening—without telling the public (unless there is a compelling reason to do so)—and they're supposed to make sure the spies, the spooks, and the secret warriors do not go too far and end up jeopardizing US values and interests.
That can only work if the legislators assigned to that oversight mission actually know what the spies and operatives are doing. And they cannot know what the CIA is doing if the CIA lies to them about it. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA repeatedly lied about its controversial interrogation program.
The Senate torture report offers an appalling narrative of CIA prevarication. In fact, anyone who has read the major congressional reports on intelligence activity and abuses in the four decades since the Church Committee first revealed CIA wrongdoing would find the new report shocking in terms of its depiction of CIA lying (though it does not use the l-word).
The report notes that the CIA misled the White House, the National Security Council, the Justice Department, and Congress about the effectiveness of its extreme interrogation techniques. The CIA did not tell policymakers the truth about the brutality of its interrogations and the confinement conditions for its detainees. The agency repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Justice Department about its detention and interrogation program, and this prevented the Justice Department from supplying solid legal analysis. The CIA was late in telling the Senate Intelligence Committee about its use of torture and did not respond to information requests from the committee. The agency (at the direction of the White House) did not initially brief the secretaries of state and defense about its interrogation methods. It provided inaccurate information about its interrogation program to the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. CIA officials gave inaccurate information about its enhanced interrogation techniques to the agency's inspector general. The CIA never compiled an accurate list of the individuals it detained or subjected to torture. The CIA also ignored objections and criticisms raised by its own officers about its detention and interrogation program.
This is a tremendous amount of CIA misrepresentation.
This is a tremendous amount of CIA misrepresentation. It is difficult to read these pages and wonder whether a system of accountability can work. Last March, it did seem oversight had completely broken down, when it was revealed that the CIA had spied on Feinstein's investigators. Oversight can only succeed if there is a degree of trust between the lawmakers who watch and the spies who are watched. And at that point, not only was trust gone, an all-out bureaucratic war was being waged between the agency and the committee. John Brennan, the CIA chief, did insist publicly that his agency had not snooped on DiFi's flatfoots. Yet that turned out to be false. And now the CIA and its cheerleaders, including former CIA officials who were in charge during the years of torture and obfuscation, are mounting a PR battle against Feinstein and the report, claiming it is 6,600 pages of off-the-wall distortions.
All this prompts the question: Is the oversight system beyond repair? One reasonable reading of the report is that the CIA cannot be relied upon to share accurate information about controversial practices with its overseers in Congress and the executive branch. That would mean effective oversight is not possible. And if a congressional inquiry of CIA practices triggers a full-scale battle between the agency and the committee, that, too, would indicate the CIA might be too tough to monitor. Moreover, if the agency and the lawmakers tasked with scrutinizing CIA actions cannot agree on basic realities, that also does not bode well for oversight.
The torture—as far as we know—is over. But the CIA's secret war against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other extremists continues, as does a host of other covert actions conducted by US intelligence agencies and military services. The Senate intelligence committee's torture report and the conflict surrounding its investigation call into question the basic rules that are supposed to ensure accountability when American spies and soldiers have to toil in the shadows. This is a matter for President Obama and Congress to come to terms with—though there seems to be little appetite for such follow-up to the Senate torture report. The report is not merely an accounting of a dark past that can now be permitted to slip away; it is a warning sign of an alarming and fundamental problem: Secret government is not working—and it might not be workable.
Osama bin Laden watches President Barack Obama on TV.
After Osama bin Laden was killed by US special operations forces, the pro-torture CIA crowd pointed to the raid as evidence that human-rights-abusing questioning can produce essential intelligence. And this debate was revived when the film Zero Dark Thirty implied the same point. During these dust-ups, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said her committee's years-long investigation of the CIA interrogation program showed that the agency's use of harsh techniques did not lead it to bin Laden's hideaway in Pakistan. The torture report she released today—that is, the 535-page executive summary of the 6,600-page full report—states bluntly that CIA torturing had nothing to do with finding bin Laden. A footnote reports that the CIA, naturally, takes issues with this and says the committee report "incorrectly characterizes the intelligence we had." That footnote adds, "This is incorrect."
Here's the blow-by-blow. After the bin Laden raid, according to the report, CIA officials, in classified briefings to the committee, said that intelligence related to the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation techniques was used to locate the Al Qaeda chieftain, referred to as UBL in the report. The committee says this "was inaccurate and incongruent" with the CIA's own records. Here's the nut graph:
CIA records indicate that: (1) the CIA had extensive reporting on [bin Laden courier] Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti (variant Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti), the UBL facilitator whose identification and tracking led to the identification of UBL's compound and the operation that resulted in UBL's death, prior to and independent of information from CIA detainees; (2) the most accurate information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti obtained from a CIA detainee was provided by a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques; and (3) CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.
That's a slam dunk. The CIA had info on the bin Laden operative who led the United States to the Abbottabad compound—but this intelligence did not come from those terrorist suspects it tortured.
The report notes that days after the raid, CIA officials said that terrorist suspects held by the agency had provided the "tip off" regarding Kuwaiti, the bin Laden courier. The committee, though, found that the "initial intelligence" and the "most valuable" information on Kuwaiti was not related to the torture program. The CIA, according to the report, had collected "significant reporting" on Kuwaiti and his close links to bin Laden prior to receiving any information in 2003 from CIA-held detainees. As early as the start of 2002, a phone number associated with Kuwaiti was under "government intelligence collection." By monitoring this number, the report notes, US intelligence identified Kuwaiti as someone to watch.
In July 2002, the CIA slyly obtained an email address believed to be associated with Kuwaiti and within a month was tracking his email activity. That summer, the CIA received reports that originated with detainees held by other governments that Kuwaiti was associated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected architect of the 9/11 attacks. Throughout 2002, the agency also had gathered "significant corroborative reporting" on Kuwaiti's age, physical appearance, and family. Other reports from foreign governments indicated Kuwaiti was a courier for bin Laden. So the CIA, according to the report, had been on to him for a while before it received any info from a detainee within its own custody.
But after the bin Laden raid, the report says, CIA officials briefed the committee and "indicated that CIA detainee information—and the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques—played a substantial role in developing intelligence that led to the UBL operation." This testimony, the report says, "contained significant inaccurate information." One example: The CIA told the committee that Kuwaiti had "totally dropped off our radar in about 2002-2003 time frame after several detainees in our custody had highlighted him as a key facilitator for bin Laden." [Committee's emphasis.] Nope, the committee says, no CIA detainee had provided information related to Kuwaiti in 2002. Moreover, it notes, "the majority of the accurate intelligence acquired on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti was collected outside of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, either from detainees not in CIA custody, or from other intelligence sources and methods unrelated to detainees, to include human sources and foreign partners."
A CIA detainee named Hassan Ghul in early 2004 did tell the CIA that Kuwaiti was a "close assistant" who was likely handling "all of UBL's needs." He also reported that "UBL's security apparatus would be minimal, and the the group likely lived in a house with a family somewhere in Pakistan." Yet, according to the report, he told this to the CIA before being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
The report challenges a statement then-CIA chief Leon Panetta made to Congress days after the bin Laden raid: "The detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us that there were individuals that provided direct support to bin Laden…and one of those identified was a courier who had the nickname Abu-Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. That was back in 2002." Not so, the report insists. And it gets worse. At a post-raid briefing a senator—unnamed in the report—asked, "Was any of this information obtained through [enhanced] interrogation measures?" A CIA officer—unnamed in the report—replied, "Senator, these individuals were in our program and were subject to some form of enhanced interrogation." The committee dryly states that the information "is not fully congruent with CIA records." It adds that the CIA's own records show that those CIA detainees who were tortured provided "fabricated, inconsistent, and generally unreliable information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti throughout their detention."
The CIA subsequently provided the Senate intelligence committee with a six-page chart on detainee reporting on Kuwaiti, noting that 12 CIA detainees had linked Kuwaiti to bin Laden and that nine of them were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques and two of those—KSM and Abu Zubaydah—were waterboarded. Another CIA document maintained that of 16 CIA detainees that had provided information on Kuwaiti, 13 did so after being subjected to torture. These documents, the committee says, were inaccurate and omitted important facts, and across several pages in the report, the committee points out a host of errors within those records.
The report essentially accuses the CIA of trying to snow the committee and the public, noting that its postraid claims were out of sync with its preraid records:
While CIA documents and testimony highlighted reporting that the CIA claimed was obtained from CIA detainees—and in some cases from CIA detainees subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques—the CIA internally noted that reporting from CIA detainees—specifically CIA detainees subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques—was insufficient, fabricated, and/or unreliable.
A footnote in the report points out that several weeks prior to the bin Laden raid, the CIA's office of public affairs was told about the pending bin Laden operation and that it began to prepare material for release following the mission. According to a CIA document, a key task for the CIA spinners was to promote "the critical nature of detainee reporting in identifying Bin Ladin's courier." It seems the agency, which was tarred by the torture controversy (and those missing WMDs in Iraq), saw the raid as an opportunity to shift the narrative about its detainee and interrogation program. And CIA boosters outside the agency, including Langley alums, did the same. The report notes that former CIA director Michael Hayden went on a talk radio show two days after the raid and said, "What we got, the original lead information—and frankly it was incomplete identity information on the [bin Laden] couriers—began with information from CIA detainees at the black sites. And let me just leave it at that."
Feinstein, who has long been supportive of the intelligence establishment, was not willing to leave it at that. The executive summary diplomatically casts Hayden as a fabricator. Moreover, it makes a strong case that during the bin Laden-torture debate and related controversies, the CIA misled its overseers on Capitol Hill and the public. It's no wonder that so many champions of the agency tried to keep this summary from becoming public. They'd rather Americans watch a Hollywood movie (which the CIA consulted on) about the bin Laden mission than read this report.
Many years ago, during the 1980s, I witnessed a killing: a New York City cop shooting an unarmed homeless man near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was later called as a grand jury witness in the case. The grand jury did not indict the officer.
It was a summer evening. I was heading to play softball in Central Park. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, I got off my bicycle to walk toward the Great Lawn. The west side of Fifth was crowded with New Yorkers enjoying the beautiful night. People were streaming in and out of the park. Sidewalk vendors were doing brisk business. The vibe was good. And in the midst of the hubbub, I spotted a fellow wearing dirty and tattered clothing. His hair was filthy, his face worn. It was hard to determine his age. He reminded me of Aqualung. (See this Jethro Tull album cover.) He was carrying a large and heavy rock with both of his hands, pushing his way through the throng, and muttering unintelligible words. I wondered, what's his story? But I didn't give it much more thought.
Most of the people on the corner were not paying attention to him. Those in his direct path, as he lumbered north, did quickly step out of his way. But no one seemed much alarmed by the guy. In New York City, unfortunately, you often saw broken people—and shrugged them off as just another crazy.
I was about to head down the footpath toward the baseball fields, when I saw a commotion to my right. Several police officers—four or so, I recall—were approaching the man with the rock. And their guns were drawn. As they neared the fellow, he dropped the rock, he then began to run in the same direction he had been walking. The cops were not grouped together; they were spread out—in a circle that was drawing tighter. The man, displaying a fair degree of agility, leaped into the street and tried to cut between two of the officers to get away.
Shots were fired. Two or three. Maybe four. And he went down.
The cops surrounded the man. He didn't move. This was no longer a person. This was a body.
I moved closer to the scene. Passersby had stopped to watch. It was still difficult to assess his age. His clothes were a grimy gray. I saw his dirty hands. Both were empty.
Soon police cars and an ambulance arrived. The paramedics did not move fast. They covered the body with a sheet. Several police officers were standing around a female officer. She was in anguish. They were consoling her. It was obvious: She had fired the shots that killed the man.
Her race? She was white. His skin color? I thought it was dark, but it was tough to tell if it was dirt or pigment.
Cops were buzzing about the scene. Flashing lights illuminated this ritzy stretch of Fifth Avenue. On-lookers gawked. And I noticed something that struck me as odd: The police officers were not talking to any of the witnesses. They were talking to each other and the paramedics. I approached one cop and said that I had seen it all. He wasn't impressed and looked at me as if to say, "So what?" I had thought the police would want to round up eyewitnesses to the shooting.
"Shouldn't I talk to someone?" I asked this officer. He nodded his head toward another policeman. I went up to that cop. "Excuse me, officer," I began. "I saw what happened." Again, I received a look of disinterest. "Shouldn't I...." He cut me off: "Talk to him." He was looking at another officer who was barking instructions to other cops.
I tried once more. I approached this officer who seemed to be in charge. "Officer, I saw...." He shut me up with a wave of his hand, signaling I should wait. And wait I did, as he directed other cops to do this or do that. The paramedics were preparing to cart off the body. After a few minutes, I went up to this officer again and told him I had witnessed the whole episode.
"Okay," he said.
He said nothing else. He didn't ask me for my name. He didn't ask if I would provide a statement. I was surprised by his lack of interest.
"Shouldn't I tell someone what I saw," I said.
"If you want to," he said, not in an encouraging tone.
"Okay, who do I talk to?" I ask.
"If you want to make a statement," he said, as if I was inconveniencing him and the entire police force, "you can go down to the station and do it there." Now I got it: He didn't want my statement, even though he had no idea what I would say. He was not interested in taking my name and contact information. It was my job apparently to make it to the police station on my own, and the station was a mile or so south.
This ticked me off. He was essentially trying to shoo me away. As the paramedics were loading the body on to the ambulance and as the cop who had shot the man was surrounded by her colleagues, I got on my bike and started to ride down Fifth.
At the station, I approached the front desk and told the officer staffing it that I had witnessed the shooting and had been told to come to the station to provide a statement. This fellow looked surprised to see me. He asked me to wait on a bench. I waited. Five minutes, fifteen minutes. I went back to the desk. Yes, yes, I was told, someone will be with you shortly. Another five minutes, another fifteen minutes. Obviously, no one would have minded if I gave up and left.
Sitting next to me in this waiting area was a woman—middle-aged and white (if that matters)—who was also a witness. We probably weren't supposed to compare our accounts, but we did. (No one had told us not to.) She mentioned that she thought she had seen the victim holding something in his hand, perhaps a knife, when he started to run. Her vantage point had not been as good as mine, and I told her that I had seen the man drop the big rock and immediately begin to run. There had been no time for him to pull out a knife. Moreover, I had been in a position to see his hands—before and after he was killed—and I saw no knife. We looked at each other and didn't know what else to say.
Finally, a detective—I think he was a detective, he didn't say—came over and gave me a form on a clipboard and asked me to write a statement of what I had seen. I did. I stuck to the facts: nutty-looking homeless man carrying a small boulder, approached by cops, drops rock and runs, cops get closer, he darts between two of the officers, cop fires on him.
It was clear to me that the officer did not have to shoot the man. He was not threatening the officers. He was trying to run from them. But I didn't write down this conclusion. I presented the facts; I believed their implication were undeniable.
When I finished, I handed my statement to one of the officers. I was told, "You'll be contacted, if that's necessary." None of my interactions with the police led me to believe that a thorough investigation was in the works.
As I left the station, I saw the female officer who had fired the fatal shots. She was with several colleagues. She was upset and appeared to be crying. The other cops were being supportive. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. My interpretation was that she had screwed up; she had overreacted or panicked and fired her shots too soon. My hunch was that she knew that.
The next day—this was long before the internet era—I checked the newspapers and saw no stories on the shooting. Some time later—I think it was a couple of months—I received a call. A grand jury was examining the shooting, and my presence was requested.
I went to the courthouse at the appointed hour and waited to be called into the grand jury room. My time in the drab conference room with the grand jury was brief. The jury was, as they say, a diverse group. But most of the jurors looked bored. A few seemed drowsy. The prosecutor asked me to identify myself and certify I had filed the statement. He asked me to describe where I had been and whether I had seen the full episode. But he never asked me to provide a complete account. The key portion of the interview went something like this:
Prosecutor: You saw him start to run?
Me: I did.
Prosecutor: Did you see anything in his hand?
Prosecutor: Did you see him holding a knife?
Me: No. But I....
Prosecutor: Thank you.
I had wanted to say that I had seen him drop the heavy rock and bolt and that it was unlikely he had been able to grab and brandish a knife while sprinting. And I thought the grand jurors should know that he had not charged at any of the officers; he had been trying to dash through an opening between two of the cops in order to flee. And if they were interested in my opinion regarding the necessity of firing on him, I would have shared that, too.
But the prosecutor cut me off. He didn't ask about about any of this. And not one of the jurors asked a question or said anything.
I left the room discouraged. This was not a search for the truth. It appeared to be a process designed to confirm an account that would protect the officer who had killed the man. The prosecutor was in command and establishing a narrative. (A knife!) The jurors appeared to be only scenery. (Insert your own ham sandwich reference here.) Long before the present debate spurred by the non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it seemed clear to me that the system contained a natural bias in favor of police officers. That certainly makes sense. Police officers have damn tough and dangerous jobs, and they are going to look out for their comrades-in-blue who slip up. And prosecutors work closely with cops to rack up convictions, and they don't want to alienate their law enforcement partners. No one in that grand jury room was there to serve the interests of the dead guy.
On the way out of the courthouse, I realized I did not know the name of the victim.
I subsequently called a reporter who worked on the metro desk of the New York Times to tell him about my experience, hoping the paper would dig into the case. But I never saw a Times story on it. (At the time, I was working for a magazine that covered arms-control issues and in no position to write about the event. And back then, there was no equivalent to tweeting, blogging, or Facebooking.)
Several weeks, or a month or two, after my grand jury appearance, I called the person who had contacted me about testifying. Whatever happened? I asked. Oh, the man said, the case is over. I took that to mean the officer was not charged. Before I hung up, another question occurred to me. I don't know why I thought about this, but I asked, "Whatever happened to the body of the man who was shot?" He was never identified and buried somewhere, he replied. And I wondered, never identified? How hard did they try?