Thursday, February 3, 2011

"The drowning technique called waterboarding"

It's good to see that the New York Times has finally decided to call a spade a spade. For years it has followed the Bush administration’s lead in using euphemisms and circumlocutions to describe the notorious and plainly illegal interrogation techniques inflicted on prisoners held overseas and accused of terrorist activities. Though it has expressed some pride in the alleged candor of its terminology, the Times had always avoided calling torture by its name.

In particular, the Times employs several evasive phrases to describe so-called waterboarding: ‘the near-drowning technique’; ‘the simulated drowning technique’; and most bizarrely ‘the controlled drowning technique’. Collectively, they ratify the position adopted by the Bush administration by insinuating that drowning can be something other than drowning in the right circumstances. But drowning describes the filling of lungs with liquid, nothing more or less. It’s not something that can be ‘simulated’ or ‘near’, and ‘control’ is beside the point. You wouldn’t apply any of those terms to castration, say, if the government inflicted that on prisoners and then worked to reverse or mitigate the damage done. So why did the Times try for so many years to soften the plain fact that the US government was having men drowned?

Now at least the Times is starting to find the courage or sense to state the plain truth. In just the last day in an editorial as well as in an article reviewing Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir the NT Times has taken to using the unadorned expression "the drowning technique called [or 'known as'] waterboarding".

It seems that the Times made a recent decision to permit, perhaps even to prefer, honest language in this regard. On Jan. 19th of this year it posted an article on Guantanamo prosecutions by Charlie Savage that also used the same frank expression.

It appears that the Times was feeling its way tentatively toward candor back in November of 2010. On Nov. 14th it referred to "the drowning technique called waterboarding" in an article about an investigation of Dr. James E. Mitchell, a rogue psychologist who promoted torturous interrogation techniques under the Bush administration. However 4 days earlier it had used and subsequently retracted that language in an article on the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute anybody for destroying CIA videotapes of several interrogations that employed torture.

This appears to be an interesting case study in the Times’ timidity in the face of Orwellian language. The article as originally published contained the following details [highlighting is mine]:

The role of once-secret memorandums about interrogation techniques by politically appointed lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has been controversial. The documents, which leaked in 2004 when the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was in the headlines, asserted that the president, as commander in chief, has the constitutional power to override anti-torture statutes. The memos also claimed that certain techniques — like stripping prisoners naked, keeping them awake for long periods, slamming them into walls, and subjecting them to the drowning technique called waterboarding — did not amount to torture

At some later stage the article was revised. Only the newer version is available at the Times’ website. The most extensive alteration, indeed the only one that I find (this is not indicated by the Times), is that the foregoing paragraph was edited down to produce the following:

Mr. Holder was referring to once secret Justice Department memorandums asserting that certain interrogation techniques, like stripping prisoners naked, keeping them awake for long periods, slamming them into walls and subjecting them to waterboarding, would not violate antitorture laws.

In the original version I highlighted the parts that were removed subsequently. You can see how much that is purely factual has been stripped out of the original, all of it quite unflattering to the Bush administration. The later omissions included the phrase "the drowning technique", which was not even replaced by one of the Times' traditional evasive phrases.

It seems that the Times wasn’t quite ready last November to see the stark language of truth being used. But the policy of evasion regarding waterboarding (at least) has now been reversed.

Admittedly, the Times has twice in the past described waterboarding as “the torture technique”, in an editorial from 2008, and in a second one from 2009. But as far as I can determine it has never stated that candidly as a fact in a news story. And in any case it is only quite recently that the Times has become willing to go on record describing waterboarding as “the drowning technique”.

So two cheers for the new found courage of the New York Times’ sort-of convictions.

crossposted at