The Gray Lady Calls the GOP Candidates Gray

The NYT had a hysterical editorial calling out the GOP candidates for claiming that waterboarding is not torture.

As hard as it is to believe, the Republican candidates for president seem to have learned very little from the moral calamities of the administration of George W. Bush. Three of the contenders for the party’s nomination have now come out in favor of the torture known as waterboarding. Only two have said it is illegal, and the rest don’t seem to have the backbone to even voice an opinion on the subject.

At Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann said they would approve waterboarding of prisoners to extract information. They denied, of course, that waterboarding is torture, even though it’s been classified as such since the Spanish Inquisition. “Very disappointed by statements at S.C. GOP debate supporting waterboarding,” Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, wrote on Twitter. “Waterboarding is torture.”


As empty as Mr. Romney’s remarks were about Iran, his refusal to renounce waterboarding is disturbing. There are few issues that more clearly define a candidate’s national security policy in the 21st century than a position on torture. A few candidates will fight terrorism using the rule of law, honoring the nation’s moral standards to encourage other countries to do the same. Others will defend the United States by promising to extract information from captives using pain and simulating death, degrading the nation’s reputation. That group now includes Mr. Cain, Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Romney.  [my emphasis]

Oh, I agree with the sentiment. On this issue (aside from Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul) the GOPers are a bunch of immoral thugs.

But I’m rather amused that the editorial page of the NYT–the NYT!!!–is attacking others for refusing to call waterboarding torture.

As Glenn Greenwald noted, here’s what two of the then-editors have had to say about whether waterboarding is torture or not.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explaining why his newspaper won’t describe Bush interrogation techniques as “torture”:

[D]efenders of the practice of water-boarding, including senior officials of the Bush administration, insisted that it did not constitute torture.

New York Times Washington Bureau Editor Douglas Jehl on why his paper refuses to describe Bush’s waterboarding program as “torture”:

I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?

And here’s what the NYT’s spokesperson said in response to a study showing that they had changed their language on waterboarding once the US embraced using it.

“As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

It is true that the Times “opinion” pages call waterboarding torture. In fact, when I tweeted about this, NYT’s Ed Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal tweeted back,

Have called it torture from start.

And NYT Editorial Board Member David Firestone tweeted,

Editorial page has loudly called it torture since 2005. Entirely separate news side follows own course. Standard U.S. practice.

But here’s the problem. The institutional position of the NYT maintains that whether waterboarding constitutes torture or not is a matter of opinion, not fact. And using the NYT’s own institutional logic (logic I strenuously disagree with), would mean the GOP candidates are entitled to their opinion that waterboarding is not torture, regardless of how long it has been “classified as torture.”

And particularly given that some of the best reporting on the country on waterboarding–that which appeared in the NYT–has refused to call it torture, NYT can’t really fault the GOP candidates for their “opinion.” After all, when the NYT presented “the facts” about this country’s use of waterboarding, it informed their readers that waterboarding is no more than harsh or brutal treatment, not torture. If these candidates read the NYT to get their “facts” about the world, they would have every reason to hold the “opinion” that waterboarding is not torture. Effectively, the NYT editorial page is either arguing that readers should not treat the paper’s factual reporting as factual anymore, or that they would be immoral for doing so.

The NYT says it honors the nation’s moral standing to treat waterboarding as torture and act accordingly. It says it degrades the nation’s reputation not to do so.

So why isn’t the NYT’s editorial page concerned about what the NYT’s news page is doing to this nation’s moral standing?

19 replies
  1. WilliamOckham says:

    “As the debate over the shape of the earth grew, defenders of the Flat Earth theory (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that the Earth was not round,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the pictures taken from U.S. spacecraft, and we point out that the Earth has been thought to be round for centuries.”

    The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard the Earth to be round” He continued: “So that’s what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

  2. earlofhuntindon says:

    Describing inconvenient facts as opinions is an old Rovian trick intended to discredit the messenger and the facts and to protect the political leadership and its pet policies. A decade ago I might have been shocked, shocked to read of the Grey Lady doing the same. Today, it’s old news.

    As for the Times haughtily claiming that even its OpEd page writers always called torture torture, I consider it a fabrication akin to an announcement that, “The US has been asked by local authorities to assist in their freedom fighting efforts to dislodge Communist-inspired guerillas.” More often than not, that sort of canned press release described a US-backed coup to dislodge a government half an inch to the left of Genghis Khan.

  3. rugger9 says:

    I still think this primary season is all kabuki designed to ensure no one gets the nomination. The Kochs and Rove will then pick their preferred candidate at the convention, and use their existing AFP, Crossroads, etc., etc., etc., groups to provide the ground support along with the unlimited money permitted by Citizens United. Otherwise I’d have to believe that Rove, Kochs, et al., are OK with being out of the WH for another four years, and anything I’ve seen of these characters tells me that’s not going to happen.

    I see Petraeus, or Jeb Bush, and a crazy for VP.

  4. Jim White says:

    The New York Times news page editorial staff is a bunch of spineless, amoral sycophants kowtowing to evil GOP talking points in order to maintain what little advertising revenue they get from a plutocracy that profits from never-ending war.

    That is a given when I am writing an opinion piece.

    It also is a given when I am writing a news piece.

  5. JohnLopresti says:

    There is a business perspective from which the Times minds its p’s and q’s. The recent press conference with the us president afforded an opportunity for public media to do an exercise in newspeak about torture and its effect upon national moral standards, no double entendre intended. One of the legal minds working assiduously on the topic within government sporadically has written a succinct blog post recently, summarizing in excerpts Obama statements both from the recent presser and a statement promulgated at the 100-day review threshold following taking office in January 2009; there. there was a lot of hype hurled at nyt back in the heyday of torture, illegal wiretaps, and the plot to purchase aluminum tubes; judyjudy even had a part, while she worked there. The link is the article from mlederman with the president quotes. the wierd part is the voice cain and bachmann are quoted as giving to atavism. the democratic party occasionally has had its microminority candidates on other issues.

    OT: I see the torture rhetoric’s morphing depending on who is in the presidency as having a corollary in the courts currently where about five southern states are seeking in district court of dc to obtain some kind of cathartic obliteration of the civil voting rights act which congress renewed for another 25 year term beginning in 2006, specifically the states appear to hope to be ready soon to ask scotus to get into a hassle with congress over the act’s section 5, which controls how autonomous states are when redrawing voting district boundaries decennially. A fine summary of the voting rights provisions in this regard appeared in an opinion from district judge jd bates 2 months ago, 150 pages, 700 kb, there.

  6. Jeff Kaye says:

    Glenn Greenwald can look virtuous by putting down the NYT ducking language about “torture.” Of course, he is right as far as that goes. But for years now, Mr. Greenwald has been silent about the use of torture techniques in the Army Field Manual, though not silent about the AFM itself. Here’s a link in which he polemicizes against Feinstein b/c she will not stand totally by mandatory CIA use of the manual.

    Yes, I condemn Glenn Greenwald for refusing to call out the Army Field Manual’s Appendix M, and other portions of that manual for also being torture. He had no trouble understanding that isolation was torture when it came to Bradley Manning, but never made the connection to the AFM. Why was that? (And it’s not as if he doesn’t read Scott Horton, or is unaware of what his Salon commenters or those who email him think about this subject.)

    But, in fact, the AFM allows use of torture techniques, including blackout goggles in order to prolong the “shock of capture” and disorient prisoners (something a British court just agreed constituted torture — I’ll be writing more on this very soon), isolation/solitary confinement for an indefinite period (upon approval), sleep deprivation, use of fear-inducing measures, even the use of drugs in interrogations, so long as they do not cause “long-term” damage.

    So pardon me if the piling on of the New York Times in this instance fails to capture my support, as what would really count here is going after the torture that actually does exist and is ongoing, not jumping on Obama’s bandwagon to criticize Bachman and Cain (as disgusting as they are), or posing to the left of the old gray lady, when really, one’s own editorial positions fail to counter actual torture techniques in the real world.

    Am I too harsh on Mr. Greenwald? Well, I’ve only waited years for him to pronounce something, write one sentence even about Appendix M, or the AFM use of isolation and sleep and sensory deprivation. Marcy has written a great deal on this. So have former interrogators, Scott Horton (and more humbly, myself).

    But Glenn, nothing. Why is this Glenn? — This is no minor point. The entire debate around torture centered around the implementation of the Army Field Manual rules, and the MSM (and here Glenn has by his silence joined with them) rallied around the concept of the AFM has a real alternative to Bush’s EIT program. An alternative it certainly was, but only in the sense that the EITs were junked in favor of the old DDD design, rooted in use of isolation and sleep deprivation and drugs, a design that was ably described in the CIA’s old KUBARK interrogation manual.

    The PTB love to frame the torture debate around waterboarding, because it’s such an awful torture technique. But the CIA and Defense Dept have long relied on more psychological forms of torture. A victory against waterboarding doesn’t guarantee much of anything, except a (possible) end to waterboarding. The torture continues, and moreover, is embedded in the very document that the Obama administration and most liberals put forward as an antidote to the waterboarding and EITs.

    As we shall soon see, key figures in the Obama administration national security and intelligence apparatus were also involved in the torture program, even in its inception (or rather rebirth) in the days following 9/11.

  7. MadDog says:

    I would not be surprised if the Gray Lady does polling in order to determine what stories not to run, what topics not to bring up, and what words would offend their subscriber base.

    On the last point, I’m sure that the only “no-no” word that gives any competition at the NYT to “torture” is “blowjob”.

  8. MadDog says:

    Totally OT – Saw on CBS News that the AP has this on the Sandusky child rape crimes:

    “…McQueary’s actions also have been scrutinized, with some suggesting he didn’t do enough after witnessing child sex-abuse.

    McQueary told a friend from Penn State that he stopped the alleged assault and went to the police about it. The friend made an email from McQueary available to The Associated Press on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity.

    In the email dated Nov. 8 from McQueary’s Penn State account, the former Nittany Lions quarterback wrote: “I did stop it, not physically … but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room… I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police….no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30-45 seconds…trust me…”

  9. What Constitution? says:

    Really encouraging to see that the NYT editorialists have the truly insightful wisdom to intone that “There are few issues that more clearly define a candidate’s national security policy in the 21st century than a position on torture.”

    I guess that means the a decision to engage in torture isn’t a crime, it’s a “policy choice.”

    Who wrote this editorial, Mukasey?

  10. MadDog says:

    @What Constitution?: The old Gray Lady’s decision to call it a “position on torture” simply reinforces the same old demonstrably false refrain one always hears from the lips of Republicans/Conservatives. Namely, what they are saying is the following:

    “Our opponents are criminalizing policy!”

    But the truth of the matter is that it is they who are:

    “Politicizing criminality!”

    Apparently the old Gray Lady has no shame.

  11. Bustednuckles says:

    I agree they have no spine, are ignorant motherfuckers, deny that excruciating methods that cause near death are torture and are so fucking stupid to realize it is and refuse to prove it by having it done to themselves in front of my face proves to me they are lying, ignorant sonsabitches unworthy of even the consideration of election to higher office.

    I damn near drowned in the Missouri river when I was six fucking years old and you will never, ever convince me that waterboarding isn’t fucking torture.

  12. GKJames says:

    Doesn’t the Times’s news/editorial distinction evaporate into nonsense the instant that the news side refers to “enhanced interrogation,” a term that in itself reflects an editorial judgment? And why should the government’s version be the standard of reference when basic research by the NYT legal department could have produced a match of practice to statute to yield the conclusion that, yup, it’s torture? It wouldn’t have been a definitive legal conclusion, but neither is the government’s.

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that using “torture” would have miffed the Administration which, in turn, might have reduced NYT access. In other words, same old story.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Nicely said. To repeat your point, torture can be inflicted psychologically and physically. The US has long paid lip service to avoiding the latter – even while engaging in it – while it has enhanced its ability to inflict the former. Both do unspeakable damage to the victim, the torturer and wider society. The purpose seems to be to terrorize those the government claims to protect. Look forward to your comments on the British decision.

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