When the Bush-Cheney regime went on an orgy of torture, they denied that what they were doing deserved that label and the US media became extremely coy about calling it that, although the practices such as waterboarding had been unambiguously condemned as torture when done by Japanese on American prisoners of war and the perpetrators had been executed. The New York Times was one of the worst culprits during that period, routinely using the phrase ‘enhanced interrogation’ that the Bush administration wanted them to use instead of calling it torture.
The new executive editor Dean Baquet of the Times yesterday issued a statement explaining its actions that, if you can believe it, makes the paper look even worse. Here it is in full, with emphasis added by me.
Over the past few months, reporters and editors of The Times have debated a subject that has come up regularly ever since the world learned of the C.I.A.’s brutal questioning of terrorism suspects: whether to call the practices torture.
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.
But as we have covered the recent fight over the Senate report on the C.I.A.’s interrogation program – which is expected to be the most definitive accounting of the program to date – reporters and editors have revisited the issue. Over time, the landscape has shifted. Far more is now understood, such as that the C.I.A. inflicted the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times on a single detainee and that other techniques, such as locking a prisoner in a claustrophobic box, prolonged sleep deprivation and shackling people’s bodies into painful positions, were routinely employed in an effort to break their wills to resist interrogation.
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.
Given those changes, reporters urged that The Times recalibrate its language. I agreed. So from 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.
I have rarely seen such weaseling on a major issue. Read the comments to Baquet’s statement to see that almost no one is buying this nonsense. An honest statement from him would have been the following:
Although what the Bush administration did to its prisoners was unquestionably torture, they did not want us to use that word because it could immediately trigger legal action against those at all levels because torture is a violation of both federal and international law. Because our primary objective is to serve as a loyal mouthpiece of the government, we did not want to do anything that might anger those in power or cause them to stop giving us the self-serving leaks that is one of our main ways of ‘reporting’ or, even worse, stop inviting us to their parties, so we used the euphemisms they gave us. This involved us having to invent convoluted explanations like the ones above of why the situation was “vague” and “murky” when it was nothing of the sort but hey, that’s what friends are for.
But now that president Obama has said that what was done was in fact torture while at the same time no legal action will be taken against anyone that committed it and even called them ‘patriots’, we have decided that it is safe for us to also use the word.
But don’t worry, we will continue to do what the administration tells us to do so that we and the government can continue the double standard of condemning wrong actions when done by the enemies of the US while the same actions done by the US or its allies will be prettied up to look as if it is acceptable and even admirable.
That is, after all, how we see the task of ‘the paper of record’.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the cream of American journalism: Taking a stand only when the time when it would have mattered is past.