New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet announced Thursday evening that the newspaper “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.”
After facing fierce criticism for its decade-long refusal to use the word in its coverage of the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program, the paper’s change is widely seen as overdue.
“File this one in the ‘about time’ folder,” wrote Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who promised to “dive into the archives to fish out the paper’s greatest torture euphemisms.”
Baquet wrote that Times reporters pushed the paper to “recalibrate its language” after the landscape of the debate changed.
He argued that the details of the CIA’s interrogation program aren’t nearly as nebulous as they were a decade ago, when the agency’s practices under the Bush administration came to light.
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.
Andrew Sullivan, who has assailed the Times over its adoption of the government’s euphemisms to describe torture, called hogwash on Baquet’s argument.
“We knew all this beyond any doubt almost a decade ago,” Sullivan wrote on his blog, citing a 2005 book review he penned for the paper.
“I used the word torture in that review to describe things that any sane person would call torture – based on the overwhelming evidence in front of us at the time,” he added.
Nevertheless, Sullivan wrote that it’s “time to celebrate that the newspaper of record is no longer covering for war criminals.”
Baquet explained that the paper’s practice was indeed influenced by Bush’s Justice Department, which insisted that techniques like waterboarding “did not rise to the legal definition of ‘torture.'”
“The Times described what we knew of the program but avoided a label that was still in dispute, instead using terms like harsh or brutal interrogation methods,” he wrote.
Bill Keller, who served as executive editor of the Times from 2003 until 2011, offered a similar rationale in a piece he wrote for the paper last year.
The editors (I was one at the time) argued that what constituted torture was still a matter of debate, that this issue was not just linguistic but legal and had not yet been resolved by a court, and that the word was commonly applied to such a range of practices as to be imprecise.
The change at the Times may irk the same conservatives who pilloried President Obama for comments he made at a press conference last week.
Citing the same Senate intelligence report that Baquet referenced in his piece, Obama casually dropped the word that is still divisive to so many.
“Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong,” Obama said. “We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.”