Harsh Interrogation Techniques or Torture?

The Ombudsman's office has received a slew of emails challenging NPR's policy of using the words "harsh interrogation tactics" or "enhanced interrogation techniques" to describe the treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration.

Some say that by not using the word "torture" NPR is serving as right-wing apologists for water-boarding and other methods of extracting information.

"I have been swallowing my tongue for 8 years listening to politicians and news people use fuzzy, inexact language when reporting on our various military engagements ("war on terror" e.g.)," wrote Daryl Makosky of Wheat Ridge, CO. "But let's call a spade a spade. The Bush administration agreed that methods such as water boarding were torture. Then they promised the US didn't practice torture. Now, thanks to the release of the CIA memos, we know they did.

"So let's not mince words and use euphemisms like "harsh interrogation tactics," Makosky continued. "What the United States promoted and allowed to happen under the Bush administration was the TORTURE of prisoners of war and I would hope that my most-respected news source, NPR, wouldn't pussy-foot around this topic."

How should NPR describe the tactics used to coerce information out of terrorism suspects?

Ted Koppel, the former ABC Nightline host and commentator on Talk of the Nation, said in May that the U.S. should "define it [torture] as being any technique or practice which, when applied to an American prisoner in some other country or captured by some other entity, that we would object to. If we object to it being done to an American, then I think it's torture."

That seems clear enough, but the problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama have insisted that the United States does not use torture. Officials during the Bush administration acknowledged the use of what they called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Also, not all interrogation could be classified as torture. Sleep deprivation, nudity and facial slaps are different from, say, pouring water on a cloth over someone's face for 20 to 40 seconds to create the sensation of drowning — a practice known as waterboarding.

Scott Horton is a lawyer and blogger for The Atlantic who has written about the subject of torture. He points to George Orwell's 1946 essay: Politics and the English Language. "The thrust of the piece is we have to be on guard against the government debasing of language through the use of euphemisms," said Horton.

"So in not using the word torture, you are toeing the line the government put down and you are being hypocritical if you previously had used the word," said Horton, who noted the New York Times used the word torture in its reporting on the Communist Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

"And the media is affecting the debate because you are saying it is a legitimate question and that reasonable people could differ on whether waterboarding is torture or not," he continued. "The media pulling back from the use of the word legitimized the views that waterboarding is not torture. As a result of the way it's treated by the media, most Americans really think this is an open question." Please listen to Horton discussing this with On The Media.

It's a no-win case for journalists. If journalists use the words "harsh interrogation techniques," they can be seen as siding with the White House and the language that some U.S. officials, particularly in the Bush administration, prefer. If journalists use the word "torture," then they can be accused of siding with those who are particularly and visibly still angry at the previous administration.

There has been no clear consensus on what constitutes torture, noted Brian Duffy, NPR's former managing editor in late April.

"President Bush said, 'We do not torture — period.' Yet water-boarding and several other tactics not approved in the Army Field Manual were approved by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) during his administration," said Duffy.

"During his confirmation hearings, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder said clearly that water-boarding was torture, and President Obama has said the same thing," he continued. "But the Obama Administration has issued no overarching statement on the issue, instead rescinding approval for CIA interrogators to use water-boarding and the other tactics the Bush administration approved but not making clear which tactics it does approve."

NPR decided to not use the term "torture" to describe techniques such as water-boarding but instead uses "harsh interrogation tactics," Duffy told me.

I recognize that it's frustrating for some listeners to have NPR not use the word torture to describe certain practices that seem barbaric. But the role of a news organization is not to choose sides in this or any debate. People have different definitions of torture and different feelings about what constitutes torture. NPR's job is to give listeners all perspectives, and present the news as detailed as possible and put it in context.

"I understand the desire to 'call a spade a spade,' but it is not for journalists to start labeling specific practices torture," said Duffy. "That's what the debate is about — what constitutes torture?"

To me, it makes more sense to describe the techniques and skip the characterization. For example, reporters could say that the U.S. military poured water down a detainee's mouth and nostrils for 40 seconds. Or they could detail such self-explanatory techniques as forcing detainees into cramped confines crawling with insects, or forced to stand for hours along side a wall.

A basic rule of vivid writing is: "Show, Don't Tell." An excellent example of using facts rather than coded language was a 2005 piece by former NPR reporter John McChesney. It gave meticulous details of tactics used against an Iraqi detainee at Abu Graib who later died.

More recently, David Sweeney took over as managing editor and shared how NPR journalists should handle the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody:

NPR concluded that the four memos from the Department of Justice released in April should be called 'torture memos' because torture is the explicit subject.

"So the memos are about torture even if they conclude the techniques are not torture, per se," according to a memo to staff. "However, we should not allow that usage to become generalized to the issue overall. The issue is not torture but interrogation techniques, perhaps harsh or extreme ones. Some consider them torture. Many call them torture. But we should say on this side of simply labeling them such."

NPR uses a variety of descriptions, said Sweeney. For example:

  • We may refer to the actions as 'harsh' or 'extreme' techniques;
  • In context we may refer to what some call 'enhanced interrogation techniques.' This was the language used by the Bush administration and is used by people such as former CIA director Mike Hayden;
  • We may refer to specific techniques — such as waterboarding — and note that the President and/or the Attorney General have said that waterboarding is torture;
  • We may refer to specific techniques — such as waterboarding — without using a label like torture or harsh at all;
  • We should remember that many of the controversial techniques were not waterboarding. So that we've tried to avoid blanket descriptions that lump all techniques together;
  • And, we have on occasion used the word 'torture' unambiguously when this made sense in the context of the piece.

"We understand that no matter what language we use, we risk taking one side or another in this debate," said Sweeney. "To label techniques as 'enhanced' risks minimizing what was done. To call them torture suggests we've taken sides in the debate. We hope that range of descriptions outlined above strikes as good a balance as possible. In many pieces, we describe the techniques in more than one way, hopefully as specifically as possible and in context."

All recent NPR stories related to this topic can be found at this site.

The Ombudsman invites you to weigh in on this topic.

Update: Comments have been closed for this entry. The Ombudsman invites you to read her follow-up response here.

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