The New York Times's tortured relationship with the "T" word takes an interesting turn Wednesday. The paper's print and online editions diverge, and the Times manages to report on a debate over torture without quite acknowledging that the Bush administration, uh, tortured terrorism suspects.
First, the headline. On the front page of the print edition, you'll find this: "Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again." Online, though, is the considerably more frank "Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture." Below the headline is a story summary that says, "The raid that led to bin Laden's death has raised anew the issue of using torture to gain intelligence."
On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward acknowledgment that some suspects were tortured, which would be something of a landmark for the Times. Two years ago, then public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that Times editors had decided not to describe waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics as "torture", although it would quote critics as saying so. Indeed, Hoyt added, the Times had come under some criticism even for adopting the word "brutal" to describe those methods.
When you read Wednesday's story, by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, you learn that the "T" word rule is still in effect. Here's how it begins:
"Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?
"As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' like waterboarding."
The "T" word appears repeatedly in the story, but not as a description of what actually took place. Rather, it is in the context of "a national debate about torture", Barack Obama's past statements that waterboarding and other harsh methods were "torture", efforts to avoid "a partisan battle over torture" and the like. Among those quoted as claiming torture (OK, enhanced interrogation techniques) worked are Bush-era torture apologist John Yoo and US Representative Peter King (Republican, New York), last seen subjecting Muslim Americans to psychological torture at his Star Chamber hearings on Capitol Hill.
Now, let's be clear. There is no evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture had anything to do with producing the intelligence needed to track down Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it's been reported that the worst of the Guantánamo terrorists, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, tried to divert interrogators away from bin Laden's courier despite having been tortured repeatedly. In a withering takedown of the pro-torture argument, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes at the Atlantic:
"It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden's couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a 'mosaic' of information that led to bin Laden's demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument?"
And just in case you're not convinced that waterboarding is torture, consider the historical evidence, which I laid out in a piece for the Guardian last year. The Times frankly referred to waterboarding as torture in 1945 in reporting on its use against American prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. No less an authority than US Senator John McCain has noted that some Japanese officers were executed for waterboarding prisoners. And Harvard's Shorenstein Centre last year produced a study showing that waterboarding was routinely described as torture – until the Bush White House started using it against terrorism suspects.
The New York Times, as the US's leading news organisation, has harmed the public discourse by refusing to call torture by its proper name. This latest instance is just another example of how it has tied itself into knots in its ongoing attempt to avoid saying the obvious.
• This article was originally published on Dan Kennedy's Media Nation blog, and is crossposted on the Guardian website by kind permission.