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
    Roger Strong (profile), 8 Aug 2014 @ 7:18am


    ...for purely populist reasons.

    That claim might have had an ounce of credibility if it were just a few confirmed terrorists subjected to sleep deprivation. Alas, it was not.

    They were kidnapping and torturing just to see **IF** someone had information. Like say Maher Arar, a Canadian telecommunications engineer, kidnapped, beaten and tortured for a year, before being released with an "er, never mind." They kidnapped over 100 people from EU soil alone.

    It wasn't just waterboarding and stress positions and sleep deprivation and beatings. Brits being present for part of it became a major scandal in Britain. It ended up in court with British intelligence officers testifying in court for example, "Mr Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, is very far down the list of things they did." (The US eventually dropped charges and released him with an "er, never mind.")

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/defence/4551441/UK-government-suppressed- evidence-on-Binyam-Mohamed-torture-because-MI6-helped-his-interrogators.html

    http://thinkprogress.org /security/2009/02/09/35952/mohamed-torture-uk-us/

    Or there's the ruling by the European Human Rights Court confirming - Macedonian state police had observed this - that when CIA agents kidnapped and tortured and beat German citizen Khaled el-Masri, they even sodomized him to break his will. (In CIA parlance, subjected him to "capture shock")

    (After sending him from Europe to Afghanistan for months more torture, they realized that they had the wrong person. So they flew him to a third country, and dropped him off on a back road with an "er, never mind" and no money or ID or apology.)

    Make no mistake: The US is still a torture state. The US government refuses to prosecute those who did it. The US government refuses to prosecute those who ordered it. Dick Cheney and friends are still on US news programs and no-one bats an eye. John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos to tell those who did it that torture was peachy-keen, is a law professor at Berkeley for Christ's sake.

    During the 2004 election it was already known that the US had turned into a mass-torture state. Bush II and friends were reelected.

    During the 2012 election Republican candidates Bachmann, Cain, Perry and Santorum ALL called for torture to resume. (Presumably Ron Paul thought that waterboarding is an issue that should be left to the states.) Not only did this not cause a scandal or hurt their chances within the Republican Party, but there wasn't a hint of a scandal about it with the Democrats or the general public.

    This is not a country that has ended torture. At most it's a country that has paused torture for the current administration.

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