NYT Still Has a Torture Problem

What do you call it when prisoners are slammed into walls, forced to wear diapers, placed in stress positions and subjected to drowning? You call that torture–unless you’re the New York Times, and the United States is accused of being the torturers.

A new report from Human Rights Watch indicates the group has found another victim of CIA waterboarding. This is especially significant because the Agency has long claimed that they had only tortured three people this way.

The Human Rights Watch investigation was reported in the New York Times (9/6/12) by Charlie Savage and Scott Shane. But their report recalled the Times‘ record on what to call torture when the United States is doing the torturing.

In 2004, FAIR called out the Times for the paper’s unwillingness to call label torture committed by the United States as torture.  A study by Harvard students in 2010 established that major outlets called waterboarding torture–until it was revealed that the United States was doing it. The problem didn’t go away; in 2010, the paper referred to “harsh interrogation techniques” in a review of a George W. Bush book.

So what does today’s New York Times call water torture?

Libyan Mohammed Shoroeiya claims he was detained in Pakistan in 2003 and held by the CIA before being returned to Libya. His description of waterboarding and being forced to stand on a box would qualify as torture–and would likely be called that, were it not for the fact that it’s the CIA that’s accused of torturing.

So instead readers get euphemisms: “waterboarding,” “interrogation methods,” “CIA techniques,” “treatment of terrorist suspects” and “other mistreatment”–which is an unusually sanitized term for what Shoroeiya and another detainee are talking about:

They described being stripped naked and chained to walls; being left in diapers in dark cells for weeks or months at a time without being allowed to bathe; being forced into painful stress positions; being slammed into walls while their necks were protected by a foam collar; being forced into a small box; and being subjected to continuous, loud music.

The Times does not completely avoid the T word. There is one reference to a “board being used in water torture” halfway through the piece.

But contrast the overall tone of the Times account to Human Rights Watch’s approach. This is their lead:

The United States government during the Bush administration tortured opponents of Muammar Gadhafi, then transferred them to mistreatment in Libya, according to accounts by former detainees and recently uncovered CIA and UK Secret Service documents, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. One former detainee alleged he was waterboarded and another described a similar form of water torture, contradicting claims by Bush administration officials that only three men in U.S. custody had been waterboarded.

As Human Rights Watch reports, the detainees were reportedly tortured–and then handed over to Libya. If the report was devoted solely to detailing the torture they suffered under Gadhafi, one might assume the Times would call it torture.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.