NY Times and Torture: A Decade Too Late?

Abu_Ghraib_17aOn August 7, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote a brief piece for the Times Insider website that more or less declared the newspaper was going to start calling torture torture. While this is probably good news, there are some important questions to pose about the rationale behind the decision.

There have been many battles over the Newspaper of Record’s failure to adequately describe US torture policies. Ten years ago FAIR was critiquing the paper for reporting on CIA torture practices without calling them such (Action Alert, 5/14/04).

While this shift brings the Times closer to the position of its critics, Baquet’s explanation of it is curious. He states that when the stories first appeared “the situation was murky.” He notes that torture has a particular legal definition– but that the “Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of ‘torture.'”

So what has changed? Baquet references the “recent fight over the Senate report on the C.I.A.’s interrogation program,” and then suggests that the “landscape has shifted.” He writes:

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.

It’s not just a matter of knowing more, though. Baquet adds that the Justice Department

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.

He closes by telling readers that 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.”

Much of his reasoning is questionable. For starters, the shift seems motivated in part by decisions made by other government officials– a Senate report highly critical of the CIA’s torture practices and the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute those responsible for torture.  This is journalistically dubious, since it is essentially arguing that calling torture by its name was not advisable until those responsible for overseeing the torture were in the clear, legally speaking. Along those lines, Baquet draws on the fact that now “the debate is focused less on whether the methods violated a statute or treaty provision and more on whether they worked.” But that is precisely one of the long-standing problems with torture coverage– restricting it to a discussion of utility and not legality. Overall, one gets the sense that the paper has decided that it is politically safe, ten years down the road, to call torture by its name.

As for the idea that sufficient details were only recently available, it’s worth noting that the Times had reported the use of sleep deprivation on terrorism suspects as early as 2002.  A May 13, 2004 Times piece established some of the essential facts about the CIA program. The Times reported on the CIA waterboarding of one prisoner, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The Times also reported that, according to US officials “detainees have also been sent to third countries, where they are convinced that they might be executed, or tricked into believing they were being sent to such places. Some have been hooded, roughed up, soaked with water and deprived of food, light and medications.”

One Times report from a decade ago cited a US military investigation inquiry into torture methods that had resulted in the deaths of some prisoners (9/17/04):

“Interrogation techniques intended only for Guantanamo came to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a separate report by an independent panel, appointed by Mr. Rumsfeld and headed by James R. Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, found in August. “In Afghanistan, techniques included removal of clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, use of stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs, and sleep and light deprivation.”

And a March 4, 2003 article led with this:

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s American captors are likely to use tactics like sleep deprivation and psychological manipulation in trying to pry information from him, officials said today

That piece was headlined “Questioning of Accused Expected to Be Humane, Legal and Aggressive.”

So it’s a stretch to suggest that the use of torture was not adequately “understood” until recently. Whatever the full extent of the program, there was sufficient evidence to call it torture.

And Baquet’s guidelines for using the term torture–“incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information”–is too narrow. In fact, something like it has been floated by the Times before. In response to FAIR 2004 alert (Activism Update, 6/10/04), Times assistant managing editor Allan Siegal tried to offer distinction between torture and “abuse”:

Torture occurs when a prisoner is physically or psychologically maltreated during the process of interrogation, or as punishment for some activity or political position. Abuse occurs when the prisoner’s jailers maltreat her or him separately from the interrogation process.

But as FAIR noted, the 1984 Convention Against Torture covers more than just interrogations:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

So it’s not clear why the new Times policy is as narrow as it is.

Finally, while some of the headlines about this shift might be of the “Times to Call Torture Torture” variety, there is an important distinction to make here. The Times has a record of plainly calling torture by its name– so long as the torture is being committed by other countries (Extra!, 6/08). One study found that the Times called waterboarding torture over 80 percent of the time (Salon, 6/30/10) from the 1930s until 2004. After then, the word torture almost never appeared in connection with waterboarding, since the United States had become the torturers.

So is the Times‘ apparent shift good news? In one sense, it certainly is. Reporting that uses plain language to describe government abuses is better than reporting that does not. But the fact remains that it took the paper a decade to come to this conclusion, and the Times appears to have done so only after they were reassured that the torturers will not face justice.



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.