About Freaking Time: New York Times Will Finally Start Calling CIA Torture Practices 'Torture'

from the should-have-happened-long-ago dept

We've questioned in the past why Senators like Dianne Feinstein won't come out and admit that what the CIA did was torture. Even President Obama has used the word to explain the CIA's actions. Yet, beyond Senator Feinstein, there was one other major hold out: the NY Times refused to use that word. Until now. In a note from the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, he says that the NY Times will finally be accurate and will describe the CIA's actions as torture:
[F]rom now on, The Times will use the word “torture” to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.
In explaining the change, Baquet insists that early on, not as much was known about the techniques used by the CIA, and that many with knowledge of the situation insisted that it didn't rise to the level of torture. Of course, that those with knowledge were often protecting themselves perhaps should have risen red flags for the Times. Baquet also notes that reporters at the paper urged editors to change their policy -- so kudos to those reporters.

That said, there is something troubling in this part of the rationale:
Meanwhile, the Justice Department, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has made clear that it will not prosecute in connection with the interrogation program. The result is that today, the debate is focused less on whether the methods violated a statute or treaty provision and more on whether they worked – that is, whether they generated useful information that the government could not otherwise have obtained from prisoners. In that context, the disputed legal meaning of the word “torture” is secondary to the common meaning: the intentional infliction of pain to make someone talk.
In other words, in the past, whether or not it was torture actually mattered, because legally it might have resulted in prosecutions of people committing war crimes. Under US law, the US has to prosecute those engaged in torture. But now that the "powers that be" have made it clear it simply won't prosecute anyone, and thus it doesn't really matter legally if it's referred to as torture or not, the NY Times will finally call it what it is. That seems immensely troubling. It basically suggests the NY Times could have impacted an important debate, but chose to sit it out until it was much too late to matter.

So, yes, it's good that the NY Times is finally calling torture, torture, but it's a black mark on the paper that it didn't do so years ago.

Filed Under: cia, journalism, torture, torture report, words
Companies: ny times

Reader Comments

The First Word

From NY Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet's statement:
When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky. The details about what the Central Intelligence Agency did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word “torture” had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of “torture.” The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods.

We’ve known for a decade (due to the leak in 2004 of the 2002 Yoo/Bybee “Torture Memos”) that the U.S. used techniques including waterboarding against prisoners. We had reliable reports of these abuses from well before then. Even Michael Hayden admitted (in 2008) that the CIA used waterboarding against three detainees.

So the only “murkiness” that the Times could be referring to is whether these abuses constitute torture. Despite the perversion of applicable laws and definitions in the torture memos, the Times should not have had any difficulty in finding clarity. If it had had difficulty, though, it could have turned to any number of experts on torture and the law, including human rights organizations, military judges, physicians who treat survivors of torture, and many other reputable sources.

For that matter, when it comes to waterboarding as torture, the Times could have looked to the historical record, from the first documented use in the 14th century, where it was known (among other terms) as “water torture”; to after World War II, when the U.S. government convicted several Japanese soldiers of war crimes for the use of waterboarding on American POWs; and all the way up to the present. Or, at least, to 2002, when the U.S. government sought to redefine everything to serve its short-sighted agenda.

Who disputed the label of torture? Proponents of torture, apologists for torture, and those seeking to avoid prosecution for those crimes. This is not a real dispute -- This is people looking for excuses to justify illegal and immoral acts.

The Pew Research Journalism Project outlines nine core principles of journalism, among these are:
- Journalism’s first obligation is the truth
- Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power

In its refusal to call these abuses torture, in sanitizing the policy as “harsh interrogation”, the New York Times failed entirely to uphold these principles. Instead, it became a willing partner in the perpetuation of a grotesque fiction, denying the reality and the criminality of U.S. policy. The executive editor’s statement from yesterday does nothing to mitigate this failure.

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  1. icon
    Whatever (profile), 8 Aug 2014 @ 2:36am

    I think that the NYP is pretty much jumping the fence on this one for purely populist reasons. The acts didn't change, it's not like there is anything truly new under the sun except that Obama is honest enough to admit that there have been past occurrences. Their stand makes it sound like torture is a standard operating procedure at all times for all prisoners, which seems to be far from the truth.

    My take on what has happened with the US is pretty simple. After 9/11, the American people as an almost collected whole were behind Bush, and gave him a sort of carte blanche to get the bastards who did this to the US. Much of the aparatus you see today is that of the Bush era. The permissive culture of the US extended pretty much all the way until Obama was elected and Osama was executed. Now it's not quite as simple.

    The US quite simply was the angry victim lashing out and not caring who they hurt. But tempers have moderated, the situation has cooled, and many cannot see that the situation requires urgent, expedient, and sometimes illegal action to resolve.

    Remember, for some people, Justin Beiber is their idol, for others, it's torture to listen to him (and yes, they use his music in Guantanamo Bay to entertain the prisoners). Torture is a slippery term, and without clarity, the NYP is just contributing to muddying the waters.

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