By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: waterboarding

Times public editor: Refer to torture as torture

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane takes on the paper’s queasiness about referring to waterboarding as torture in its news pages — and comes down firmly on the side of clarity. He writes:

The Times should use the term “torture” more directly, using it on first reference when the discussion is about — and there’s no other word for it — torture. The debate was never whether Bin Laden was found because of brutal interrogations: it was whether he was found because of torture. More narrowly, the word is appropriate when describing techniques traditionally considered torture, waterboarding being the obvious example. Reasonable fairness can be achieved by adding caveats that acknowledge the Bush camp’s view of its narrow legal definition.

Since Brisbane reports that the Times’ institutional reluctance to be forthright stems from not wanting to take sides, I wish he had stated more clearly that refusing to use the “T”-word is also an exercise in taking sides — perhaps more so, since it also involves implicitly accepting the Bush administration’s claim that waterboarding isn’t torture, a claim directly contradicted by history and international law.

Still, Brisbane takes a strong stand in favor of truth, and that’s no small thing when it comes to this highly charged topic.

Jeff Jacoby tortures torture’s defenders

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes a fine comeuppance to those among his fellow conservatives who claim the killing of Osama bin Laden proves that torture works. Whether waterboarding helped produce the intelligence needed to track down bin Laden is irrelevant, Jacoby says, arguing:

Torture is unreliable, since people will often say anything — invent desperate fictions or diversions — to stop the pain or fear. That doesn’t mean waterboarding will never yield valuable information. Feeding a detainee into an industrial shredder, as Saddam Hussein’s torturers sometimes did, might yield valuable information too. But some techniques are forbidden not because they never work, not because they aren’t deserved, but because our very right to call ourselves decent human beings depends in part on our not doing them.

Jacoby also picks apart the disingenuous notion that waterboarding isn’t torture, citing — as have I and others — the execution of Japanese officers who waterboarded American prisoners of war.

The Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word

The New York Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word takes an interesting turn today. The paper’s print and online editions diverge, and the Times manages to report on a debate over torture without quite acknowledging that the Bush administration, uh, tortured terrorism suspects.

The Times online

First, the headline. On the front page of the print edition you’ll find this: “Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again.” Online, though, is the considerably more frank “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture.” Below the headline is a story summary that says, “The raid that led to Bin Laden’s death has raised anew the issue of using torture to gain intelligence.”

On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward acknowledgement that some suspects were tortured, which would be something of a landmark for the Times. Two years ago, then-public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that Times editors had decided not to describe waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics as “torture,” although it would quote critics as saying so. Indeed, Hoyt added, the Times had come under some criticism even for adopting the word “brutal” to describe those methods.

The Times in print

When you read today’s story, by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, you learn that the “T”-word rule is still in effect. Here’s how it begins:

Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.

The “T”-word appears repeatedly in the story, but not as a description of what actually took place. Rather, it is in the context of “a national debate about torture,” Barack Obama’s past statements that waterboarding and other harsh methods were “torture,” efforts to avoid “a partisan battle over torture” and the like.

Among those quoted as claiming torture (OK, enhanced interrogation techniques) worked are Bush-era torture apologist John Yoo and U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., last seen subjecting Muslim-Americans to psychological torture at his Star Chamber hearings on Capitol Hill.

Now, let’s be clear. There is no evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture had anything to do with producing the intelligence needed to track down Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it’s been reported that the worst of the Guantánamo terrorists, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, tried to divert interrogators away from bin Laden’s courier despite having been tortured repeatedly. In a withering takedown of the pro-torture argument, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes at the Atlantic:

It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden’s couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a “mosaic” of information that led to bin Laden’s demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument?

And just in case you’re not convinced that waterboarding is torture, consider the historical evidence, which I laid out in a piece for the Guardian last year. The Times frankly referred to waterboarding as torture in 1945 in reporting on its use against American prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. No less an authority than U.S. Sen. John McCain has noted that some Japanese officers were executed for waterboarding prisoners. And Harvard’s Shorenstein Center last year produced a study showing that waterboarding was routinely described as torture until the Bush White House started using it against terrorism suspects.

The Times, as our leading news organization, has harmed the public discourse by refusing to call torture by its proper name. Today’s story is just another example of how it has tied itself into knots in its ongoing attempt to avoid saying the obvious.

More: This commentary has now been posted at the Guardian.

Waterboarding and the T-word

A recent study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, shows that our largest newspapers invariably referred to waterboarding as torture before the Bush-Cheney administration began using it on terrorism suspects — and almost never thereafter.

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the media’s failure to call waterboarding by its proper name helped contribute to a dishonest conversation about what was done in our name during the darkest years of the Bush presidency.

Orwell, waterboarding and torture

Before the Bush-Cheney years, the New York Times and other large newspapers regularly referred to waterboarding as “torture.” After it was revealed that the United States was waterboarding terrorism suspects, those papers largely stopped. After all, President Bush explained in 2005, “This government does not torture people.”

So in true Orwellian fashion, editors decided that to describe waterboarding as torture would amount to a breach of objectivity, for no reason except that, all of a sudden, there were powerful people who disputed that characterization.

That is the conclusion of a paper released earlier this year by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Titled “Torture at the Times: Waterboarding in the Media” (pdf), the study includes the following findings:

  • From the early 1930s until 1999, the New York Times characterized waterboarding as torture in 44 of 54 articles on the subject (81.5 percent), and the Los Angeles Times in 26 of 27 articles (96.3 percent).
  • From 2002 to 2008, the New York Times referred to waterboarding as torture in just two of 143 articles (1.4 percent); the Los Angeles Times, three of 63 (4.8 percent); the Wall Street Journal, one of 63 (1.6 percent); and USA Today, not at all.
  • “[T]he newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.”

The study also finds that opinion writers at those papers were more likely to associate waterboarding with the T-word than were the news columns — further evidence that news editors deviated from the long-established understanding of what waterboarding really is in order to avoid being accused of anti-administration bias.

The study concludes:

The results of this study demonstrate that there was a sudden, significant, shift in major print media’s treatment of waterboarding at the beginning of the 21st century. The media’s modern coverage of waterboarding did not begin in earnest until 2004, when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released. After this point, articles most often used words such as “harsh” or “coercive” to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labeling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades.

The Shorenstein Center has documented a shocking abrogation of duty by our top newspapers in helping Americans understand what the Bush-Cheney administration was doing in their name.

The study came out in April. I’m writing about it now because the redoubtable Jay Rosen tweeted about it yesterday. This is important stuff, and I hope Rosen has given it the push it needs to become more widely discussed.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

McCain, Brown and torture (II)

One rather odd aspect of reports that Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown had said he would support waterboarding of suspected terrorists was that none of the stories I looked at — from the Boston Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and the Associated Press — quoted Brown directly.

Michael Pahre noted that shortcoming in the comments. And though the AP did quote Brown in a story earlier today on a Senate debate sponsored by WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), I still wanted to hear from the Brown campaign myself.

This afternoon I talked with Brown campaign spokesman Felix Browne, who told me that Brown did not consider waterboarding to be torture. “He believes waterboarding is an enhanced-interrogation technique,” Browne said. “It’s hard, but it’s not torture. He does not believe that it’s torture.”

Browne also said he was pretty sure Brown had not discussed his position with U.S. Sen. John McCain, a staunch opponent of waterboarding who endorsed Brown earlier this week. “Obviously Sen. McCain and Sen. Brown are two different individuals,” Browne said.

And there I thought the matter would rest — except that, when I sought to clarify whether Sen. Brown would support waterboarding terrorism suspects, spokesman Browne realized he wasn’t entirely sure. So I put off writing this until he’d had a chance to check. Early this evening he e-mailed me this:

Waterboarding has been banned by executive order of the President. It would be up to the President to reauthorize its use. Scott Brown would support the President in whatever he decides.

Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley, for her part, used the WTKK debate to clarify her own opposition to waterboarding, as I noted in an update to my earlier item.

All that’s remaining is to hear from McCain — who, as I pointed out earlier, doesn’t just oppose waterboarding, but has gone out of his way to label it as torture, and to emphasize that U.S. forces actually executed Japanese officials at the end of World War II for waterboarding American prisoners.

This is no mere difference of opinion. McCain must choose between his endorsement of Brown and his moral revulsion over a practice regarded almost universally as torture. Will someone please put the question to him?

McCain, Brown and torture

I hope the local political press is burning up the lines to U.S. Sen. John McCain’s office today. It would be interesting to know what McCain thinks of state Sen. Scott Brown’s support for waterboarding, a practice McCain rightly regards as torture.

“Waterboarding is an enhanced interrogating technique. We need to interrogate by all legal means,” Brown said yesterday. (Sadly, if you follow the link and scroll down, you’ll see that Brown’s Democratic opponent in the Massachusetts Senate race, Attorney General Martha Coakley, missed a chance to take the high road.) [See update, below.]

Brown’s remarks come on the heels of McCain’s endorsement of him in the Massachusetts Senate race — hardly a surprise, given that they are both Republicans. The question now is whether McCain will stick by his endorsement.

During the Republican presidential campaign, McCain unloaded on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani said he wasn’t sure if waterboarding was torture. According to the New York Times, McCain said of waterboarding:

All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today…. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.

On another occasion, McCain said, correctly:

Following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding.

As this well-footnoted Wikipedia article notes, waterboarding is also regarded as torture by a wide range of international and human-rights organizations. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have thought otherwise before Dick Cheney came along.

McCain, of course, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era and was himself tortured. The question now is whether he will torture logic and stand by his endorsement of Brown — or do the right thing and let Brown experience a drowning sensation caused by his own ill-chosen words.

Update: Coakley took care of whatever ambiguity she might have created by speaking out forcefully against waterboarding in a debate earlier today on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). John Monahan reports in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette:

Ms. Coakley … said she backed Mr. McCain’s view that waterboarding is a form of torture.

“I don’t agree with John McCain on much, but I respect him. He was a war hero and he was tortured and he says he thinks it is. So this is one area where Scott Brown can pick and choose what he believes, but this is an area that he is really more like Bush-Cheney than he is like John F. Kennedy,” she said.

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