Let’s talk about torture

By now you’ve probably come across a few dozen stories about the Senate’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture programs. Many of them detail the horrific actions to which the agency’s detainees were subjected, the CIA’s efforts to discredit the Senate report, and what that report means.

But, at the risk of becoming one of the navel-gazing journalists so many people have come to hate, I want to talk about the coverage of this report and its contents. The story about the story. And, more specifically, I want to talk about how the publications that refuse to call the techniques described in the Senate report “torture” are supporting the government’s cover-up.

I want to be clear about one thing: there is no question that the actions described in this report qualify as torture. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the soon-former chairwoman of the Senate committee that investigated this program, said as much in the report’s foreword. Calling the assault, waterboarding, and other “tactics” used by the CIA anything besides “torture” is dishonest.

Yet that didn’t stop the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Washington Post, and other establishment publications from dancing around the term in their coverage of the Senate’s report. Instead, they relied on some of the same euphemisms the government used to describe the program, from “tactics” to “enhanced interrogations” to the plain-jane “brutality and dishonesty.”

There’s no excuse for allowing the myth that the CIA’s actions were part of an “enhanced interrogation program” to persist despite the Senate’s report. These were not interrogations, enhanced or otherwise. They were part of a torture program that scarred — and killed—innocent people with nothing to show for it. (The intel collected via the program was, reportedly, worthless.)

The idea that this is inexcusable is especially true given the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, the press, and other peddlers of truth operating in spite of the United States’ dishonest mechanisms. As I wrote in a post published on Wednesday in which I described the plight faced by John Kiriakou, James Risen, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, and others:

Kiriakou’s case is emblematic of the Obama administration’s relentless pursuit of those who reveal the truth about the intelligence community, the military, and other agencies whose actions the administration has decided should remain hidden from public view. Meanwhile, the people who authorized and perpetrated those programs remain free.

And then:

All of which means the Obama administration believes that it’s worse to reveal the CIA’s torture programs than it is to allow innocent people to be detained and tortured for years. To report on the drone program’s “collateral damage” — which is to say innocent civilians whose only crime is living in the wrong country — than to kill hundreds of children. To reveal illegal surveillance programs than to spy on millions of people without warrants.
Put another way: the “most transparent administration in history” has shown time and again that it’s worse to reveal information than it is to violate the human rights of untold numbers of people from around the world, whether that’s via physical torture or spying.

Allowing the governmental euphemisms for this torture program to spread is an example of institutional cowardice that makes it hard to condemn the Obama administration’s adversarial approach to the free press. What’s the point in defending journalism if it’s just going to peddle in euphemism? Why should whistleblowers risk their freedom to speak to a press willing to use language that allows the government’s lies-by-euphemism to continue on?

Luckily, there are many organizations that chose not to hide behind those euphemisms. (The Guardian, The New York Times, and Reuters are prime among them.) These publications represent worthy adversaries. They are worth silencing. They might not be perfect, but at least so far as this report is concerned they present the world as it is, not as the government says it is.

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