George Orwell once said that the natural language of politics was euphemism. In his era, bombing campaigns were termed “pacification”; later decades saw civilian deaths be reduced to “collateral damage,” and kidnappings become “rendition operations.”
With the war on terror, a phrase that is itself worthy of scrutiny, euphemism flourished. Senior US officials were the innovators—speaking of “enhanced” and “alternative” interrogation techniques, when what was going on was torture—but the media followed close behind.
“We do not torture,” said President Bush in 2005, in response to mounting evidence of abuse. It was a straightforward, declaratory statement, the kind that Orwell liked, except it was also a bald lie. The following year, when Bush announced that 14 “high value” detainees were being transferred from CIA custody to Guantanamo, he said that the CIA had not tortured them, but had used an “alternative set of procedures.”
The interrogation methods the CIA used were, in his words, “tough,” “safe,” “lawful,” and “necessary.”
“Harsh Interrogation Tactics”
Three years later, and the purported lawfulness of the CIA’s methods is now under review. Having asked a special prosecutor to look into several serious cases of abuse, Attorney General Eric Holder may, at some point in the next year or two, be willing to open a full investigation of the incidents.
Holder also broke with recent practice at his confirmation hearing, when he stated unequivocally that waterboarding—among the most egregious of the past administration’s interrogation techniques—was torture.
Credible legal experts have long characterized the Bush administration’s abusive methods as torture. But the U.S. media, in contrast, has avoided the term. Media outlets such as National Public Radio and the New York Times have preferred to discuss the Bush administration’s “harsh interrogation tactics” or “severe interrogation methods”—or have used the administration’s own favored term, “enhanced” interrogation techniques—in discussing the abusive treatment of terrorism suspects in the years following 9/11. They did not—and largely still do not—directly characterize those techniques as torture.
An extreme example of this journalistic reticence was an article published in the New York Times on May 13, 2004. Titled “Harsh C.I.A. Methods Cited in Top Qaeda Interrogations,” the article described how the CIA was using “coercive” interrogation methods—including food deprivation, withholding medications, and “a technique known as ‘water boarding'”—against terrorism suspects in its custody.
The main reference to torture in the article came in claims that the techniques were not torture. As the article noted, defenders of the CIA’s approach “said the methods stopped short of torture, did not violate American anti-torture statutes, and were necessary to fight a war against a nebulous enemy whose strength and intentions could only be gleaned by extracting information from often uncooperative detainees.” The piece quoted no one saying that the CIA methods did, in fact, constitute torture, even though human rights organizations were already complaining loudly about such methods.
A little bit of background on waterboarding, one of the techniques specifically mentioned in the article. Waterboarding has long been recognized as torture, both in the US and elsewhere. In 1947, the U.S. sentenced a Japanese officer to 15 years hard labor for waterboarding an American civilian. In 1968, a U.S. army officer was court-martialed for helping to waterboard a prisoner in Vietnam.
The technique has been used by some of the cruelest dictatorships in modern times, including Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. When the New York Times covered Khmer Rouge abuses in the 1970s, it had no problem calling the technique torture.
Shaping the Public Debate
Why do these terms matter? The media’s power may have slipped in recent years, but television, radio and the written press still shape the public debate. Some of the terms embraced by the media have been, at best, euphemistic, at worst, deceptive.
Responding to such criticisms in 2007, Los Angeles Times National Editor Scott Kraft said that he was reluctant to call waterboarding torture, “because torture has become a politically charged word.” Interestingly, his interviewer pointed out that on other occasions the paper hasn’t shied away from making politically-freighted choices. It uses the term “Armenian genocide” even though a heated debate exists both domestically and internationally over whether the characterization is warranted.
NPR’s ombudsman addressed the torture issue earlier this year. In an anguished set of blog posts, the ombudsman quoted NPR news editors saying that “the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate.” While the ombudsman said that she didn’t agree with the station’s use of “bureaucratic euphemisms like ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,'” she too emphasized that it is not the role of journalists to “take sides.”
A key question is whether, by not calling abuses like waterboarding torture, the media has, in fact, avoided taking side in this debate. While it has avoided taking a critical stance, it may also have lent implicit support to the Bush administration’s view that the practices were not clearly illegal, nor clearly barred by international treaties against torture.
JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney who lives in New York and Paris.