The NYT And "Torture": A Brief Recent History

[Re-posted from earlier today]

The latest NYT euphemism for torture is "intense interrogation," another plausible translation of the Gestapo term, "verschaerfte Vernehmung", for torture that broke no bones, drew no blood and left no permanent marks. The NYT has even tried to turn "waterboarding" into a twilight zone, calling it a technique merely that critics call torture.

But if you check the Nexis archives of the NYT, you will find that their terminology has not always been so supine and vague. The classic techniques used by Cheney - sleep deprivation, cold cells, hypothermia, stress positions, forced nudity and "walling" - were described by the NYT in the past very plainly, using the term "mental torture," or in the recent obit (obviously written before Cheney p.c. came in) of an American airman, captured by the Communist Chinese, simply "torture." In reporting on the similar techniques used Agabuse by the British in Northern Ireland in 1972, the NYT called them "torture and brainwashing", which is exactly what the Cheney techniques are designed to accomplish. In 1996, the NYT ran a story on reports of "torture" in Brazil, which included "being kept naked in a cold cell," the Gestapo specialty that Cheney made standard procedure for the US. In 1997, in reporting on the CIA's record in training torturers in Latin America in the early 1980s, the NYT used the terms "psychological torture" and "mental torture" to describe long-time standing, stress positions, "deep exhaustion", and solitary confinement.

In 1998, the NYT reported on the CIA's training of Palestinian security forces. The Times reported that the CIA had dropped all last-resort use of physical torture in 1985, but also what they called "mental torture." In discussing allegations of torture by the Palestinian security services, the NYT noted a relevant fact as support for the claim: 18 prisoners had died in custody during interrogation. Even after a hundred deaths have now been recorded under the Cheney torture regime, the NYT refuses to call it torture. In 1999, in contrast, the NYT reported on "allegations of torture" in China that amounted to "beatings and solitary confinement".

Perhaps one clue to their shift can be found in their treatment of the case of Israeli torture in the 1990s. The torture Shin Bet used was the Cheney version. In 1992, the NYT reported that Palestinian prisoners had been "deprived of sleep for days and tied up in painful positions for many hours, often with their heads hooded." Another prisoner was "forced to stand handcuffed with a hood over his head in the bitter cold." Sound familiar? This brutality became "standard procedure" for most Palestinians subject to serious interrogation. The Israeli security services came up with their own euphemism, as governments usually do when they are torturing prisoners. Theirs was "moderate physical pressure." Here's an example:

"An interrogator seized him and violently rattled him back and forth, so that his head flopped uncontrollably, inflicting terrible pain to his spine and neck ... After each session of shaking, of which he recalled seven, he was taken to a doctor ... to see whether he could take more."

This appears to be a version of "walling", another Cheney technique. Then this, which is reminiscent of Bagram and how Abu Zubaydah and Jose Padilla were tortured:

"When he was not in interrogation, he was held either in a dark room the size of a closet or shackled to a low chair tilted forward in a position known in Hebrew as "shabeh", which induces considerable pain to the back and does not allow more than snatches of sleep, with a foul-smelling sack over his head and music blaring at top volume. Three times a day, he was given five minutes to eat and use the toilet, and once a week he was taken to the shower."

The Israeli government argued that their practices, which did not include waterboarding, a barbarism that even they refused to use, "were not designed to inflict severe pain and suffering." The UN Committee which examined such claims dismissed them:

"'These methods, especially when they are used in combination, as they often seem to be' are torture violating the international pact against such practices, Peter Burns of Canada said in announcing the committee's decision.'

When leading Israelis exposed these acts as a clear violation of the UN Convention's prohibition of all torture, the case went eventually to the Israeli Supreme Court. In the end, the Court ruled decisively that such methods do indeed constitute torture and a violation of the UN Convention. "This is the destiny of democracy," the court's president, Aharon Barak, wrote, "as not all means are acceptable to it and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it."

So for years the NYT used the word "torture" to describe exactly the techniques used by Cheney; and a UN Committee and Israel's Supreme Court came to the same conclusion. Despite all this, Washington editor Doug Jehl could still say with a straight face:

"Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court... On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?”

Multiple courts have made such a decision, including the Israeli Supreme Court, dealing with exactly the same methods under exactly the same UN Convention. The UN Committee, an authoritative voice on a UN Convention, has stated so unequivocally. The International Red Cross has also said that the treatment of seom detainees was unequivocally torture. What else does Jehl want? Just because one rogue US administration twists the law and murders the language, the country's paper of record does not need to be an enabler.

It is fair for the NYT to allow the Bush-Cheney administration to make their case that this was not torture. But it is not  incumbent on the New York Times to make their case for them, and to alter its own practices and past usage to avoid controversy or blowback from the far right. Words matter - as all newspaper editors know. And this ghastly story is certainly fit to print in English George Orwell would understand.