All the Torture’s that Fit to Call Torture Now Includes US Torture

On Monday in Salon, I said (in part),

[T]he recent history of America’s torture also damns the conventions of journalism that strive so hard for some kind of fake balance that still prefers a term that obscures the truth over one that accurately describes it.

Don’t get me wrong: We owe our knowledge of torture to some of the best journalists in the business, people like Jane Mayer and Dana Priest and Adam Goldman.

But as soon as coverage moved beyond that superb investigative work to coverage of the politics of torture — to the journalists who should hold those who implemented torture accountable — we remain mired in obscurantist language.

Which brings us to the torture report result the press might take most seriously.

According to McClatchy, in addition to misleading Congress, DOJ and the White House, the torture report concludes that the CIA also fed misleading information to the press: “[T]he news media were manipulated with leaks that tended to blunt criticism of the agency.”

Part of this manipulation (one the White House participated in) involved convincing the press to call torture something else, something it’s not. Enhanced interrogation. Harsh treatment.

Anything but torture.

For 10 years, journalists have willingly perpetuated this linguistic absurdity, even as more evidence came out proving the CIA used torture and not some fluffed up interrogation process, even as more and more neutral arbiters judged our torture torture.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has spent five years trying to understand and come to grips with the torture done in our name. Isn’t it time for journalists to do the same?

While I don’t flatter myself that my column was needed at this point — or even would have been influential –the NYT did just announce that it would henceforth call torture, including US torture, torture.

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.


Given [changes that have taken place in recent years, including with the legal status of torture], 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 may have more to say about the substance of the statement down the road. But for now two things are important: The most prestigious newspaper in the country has formally given up Bush’s euphemism. And this change came from the reporters.

May other outlets follow the Gray Lady’s lead.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

23 replies
  1. GKJames says:

    This highlights, though, how the mainstream press like the NYT merely made a choice; nothing compelled it, neither then nor now. Then it wasn’t cool to call it torture because, you know, our people were panicking because of 9/11 (thereby buying into the fatuous argument that governing-class panic justifies criminality). And while the long-known underlying facts never changed, fashions and tastes have, apparently. Presto! We now elect to call it torture. Particularly galling in this lack of moral courage is that the NYT et al rarely have a problem describing (accurately) OTHER countries’ execrable treatment of people as torture. But when it comes to their own government, they all turn into lawyers, using hyper legalisms that do nothing but abet the wrongdoing. (What would be fun, in fact, is a civil suit that included the NYT on a conspiracy claim. Potentially interesting discovery in terms of the NYT’s communications with the White House and the national security apparatus.)

    • wallace says:

      quote”But for now two things are important: The most prestigious newspaper in the country has formally given up Bush’s euphemism. And this change came from the reporters.”unquote

      Big deal…. what are they gonna for Bush&Co heads on pikes? Bullshit. Their only covering their own ass for historical, if not present day exposure of the truth. In my universe, the so called Grey Lady is as much a co-conspiritor to war crimes as Julius Streicher.

      The only difference is US legal imperialism had the power to hang him for the very same reasons those responsible at the New York Times will not be, notwithstanding every single US congress cockroach, executive, and judicial criminal in our country who helped perpetrate the very crimes he was hung for, propaganda that resulted in the death of thousands, whether you believe it or NOT. Bottom line…WAR CRIMES HAVE NO HISTORICAL EXEMPTION FROM MORAL PROSECUTION.

      quote”Particularly galling in this lack of moral courage is that the NYT et al rarely have a problem describing (accurately) OTHER countries’ execrable treatment of people as torture. But when it comes to their own government, they all turn into lawyers, using hyper legalisms that do nothing but abet the wrongdoing.”unquote

      Sheeezus, …shades of Roman legal imperialism. Moral courage. right. Just like we’ve seen regarding Gaza in this country. GET A FUCKING CLUE. THERE IS NO MORAL COURAGE IN THIS COUNTRY, LET ALONE THE USG ANY MORE. ONLY MONEY. PERIOD.

      goddamn..I feel sick.

    • bloopie2 says:

      So, you think they should NOT have decided to call it ‘torture’, because they are doing it for the ‘wrong’ reasons? Would that improve things?

      • GKJames says:

        No. They should have called it what it was from the beginning and what any sensible and sentient human being called it. My point is that they didn’t (until now) because they CHOSE — i.e., nothing compelled them — to give the government cover, in the same fashion that their guiding lights CHOSE to support Judith Miller’s antics over more sane alternatives. In other words, journalistic principles have little to do with this; power (and proximity to it) and lucre do.

  2. orionATL says:

    the new york times by its cutesy nickname – “the gray lady”?

    not for me thanks.

    its endlessly cowardly management has left the times “the old grey crone”, crippled, toothless, all but lifeless.

    • bloopie2 says:

      And so, what is the result? Do you stop reading it altogether? Even all the excellent factual informative pieces that are not biased? Do you think the paper should be closed down, that the world would be a better place if that were done?

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    This is how the UN Convention Against Torture treaty defines torture, for sake of comparison:

    “Torture means 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. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

    The only question left is whether the New York Times will label as torture the use of coercion and infliction of pain and/or physical or mental suffering by way of techniques used in the Army Field Manual, and particularly though not exclusively in its Appendix M.

    While I may be in a very small minority, discussion of these issues without pointing out that the primary instructions for interrogation, authorized by presidential executive order, no less, involve instructions for use of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading techniques, appears to me to be worse than useless. Talking about torture without pointing out its contemporary use is harmful to current torture victims, as it presents a false narrative that torture was a problem in the past and the only remaining issue is accountability, or keeping it from being used again.

    We don’t have to worry about torture being used again. It’s the current and ongoing policy of the U.S. Government NOW, which, of course does not use the word “torture” to describe it.

    Finally calling waterboarding torture is a small success, I suppose, but nothing compared to failing to call out use of isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, inculcation of fear and helplessness, manipulation of diet, threats to transfer to countries that torture, and involuntary use of drugs — all currently allowed use in America’s main interrogation manual — as torture.

    The failure to call out actual contemporary torture is endemic to our current politicians and press. Such a failure is a huge moral failing, and the consequences of this failure have yet to be determined.

    • TarheelDem says:

      Yes. This.

      And it’s not just our national security institutions that regularly engage in torture. Law enforcement officials at all levels have taken to heart the portrayals in the media of “toughness” as involving torture in some form or another.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Echoing your comment, it’s also worth noting how many of those torturous acts, most especially isolation, are used everyday in the public and private archipelago of US prisons.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    It is highly instructive that the New York Times decided to hide this statement behind its paywall.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Dean Baquet still has not come out of the closet. He continues to hind behind euphemisms. Baquet says that the “situation” ten years ago was “murky”. “Torture” had a “specialized legal meaning”. Torture was “a label still in dispute”, especially since the US Department of Justice insisted that whatever its government was doing or having done, it couldn’t possibly be torture. The parsing is worthy of Bill Keller.

    Baquet claims that the “debate” has now shifted away from whether particular acts were illegal, to whether they “worked”, a conveniently undefined concept still shielded by a de facto American official secrets act and its associated D notices, prohibiting press coverage of banned topics. That shift, taken together with the DoJ’s insistence that whatever the label, it will not prosecute torture committed by or for the US Government, now allows his publication to use the word torture in its “common meaning”.

    The “debate” was never about whether violently abusive acts committed by or for the US Government worked. That’s a focus the government chose and the press gave it, as if it were a grant of legal permission. It’s not, despite the government’s hopin’, wishin’ and prayin’. Those acts, if torture, are crimes. They should be prosecuted.

    No, the issue was always about finding a means to absolve those who committed torture, and those who demanded, sponsored and authorized it while denying doing so, from legal, political and moral liability for their conduct. Mr. Obama, a supine Congress and a cooperative judiciary have found a way to do that. Consent having been manufactured, it’s now safe for Mr. Baquet to recognize torture when his reporters see it.

    • wallace says:

      quote”Those acts, if torture, are crimes. They should be prosecuted. “unquote

      If torture? umm..what part of Obuttface’s admission didn’t you understand? I’m sorry pal, but you need to get a grip. In my universe, the UN Rapporteur on war crimes should be signing his name to charges while I type. I mean, what the FUCK does it take? Every CIA torturer getting online and say…I DID IT. I TORTURED HUMAN BEINGS WITH IMPUNITY. COME AND GET ME….????


    • bloopie2 says:

      I agree. Baquet should be hung from the highest rafters. What he has done here is terilble, unforgivable.

  6. stryder says:

    ” [T]he recent history of America’s torture also damns the conventions of journalism that strive so hard for some kind of fake balance that still prefers a term that obscures the truth over one that accurately describes it.”
    Kinda like,
    You raise up your head
    And you ask, “Is this where it is ?”
    And somebody points to you and says
    “It’s his”
    And you says, “What’s mine ?”
    And somebody else says, “Where what is ?”
    And you say, “Oh my God
    Am I here all alone ?”

    All my life I thought A(2)+B(2) = C(2)
    And then somebody redefined A to = F
    and it turned my life upside down and I had to unlearn everything
    I ever knew about anything,
    And now people just get uglier and I don’t believe a goddamn thing
    anybody says about anything.
    It’s all so Orwellian

    Like Israel,
    “We didn’t blow the hell out of Palestine
    we were just mowing the lawn”

    I know ,
    Since they have impunity and don’t abide by the same set of laws
    that we do, maybe they use their own dictionary too.

  7. ess emm says:

    Dean Baquet still wiggles like a barrel of snakes.

    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.

    One thing that stuck with me after reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is that “the question” is the excuse the torturers have for indulging in their brutal sadism. If you were to turn off the sound all you would see is the CIA operative damaging the human tissue of a vulnerable, restrained, defenseless person.

    Baquet indicates that the usefulness of the answer to “the question” can be an acceptable justification for torture—what’s more, he says we’ve moved the debate to torture’s effectiveness. In my view there is no justification ever for torture, so I see Baquet column in the same light as Yochanan Gordon’s When Genocide is Acceptable.

    And Jeff Kaye is right—there are other tortures, like forced feeding, that the US inflicts right now. My guess is Baquet will hide behind his “we know for sure” caveat and not call torture torture. Eff him.

  8. Pete says:

    This should make the International Criminal Court’s job a tad easier.

    Would not suggest holding one’s breath though.

    Probably a good start, but only when justice is administered to the criminals.

  9. steve says:

    So I assume this change is retroactive for all their online content, right?

    We can expect that they will do a ^H search/replace on all the articles from the last 13 years and replace “enhanced interrogation” with “torture”

    and then insert a little note at the bottom “This post was updated on August 7, 2014.”

    You could do it with a perl script. I bet it would take less than five minutes.

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