The media's big torture lie: "Enhanced interrogation" and the politics of false equivalence

Americans tortured. We've seen pictures. Reports prove it. Why does the media still refuse to call it what it is?

Published August 4, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

Dick Cheney                   (AP/Eric Gay)
Dick Cheney (AP/Eric Gay)

"U.S. Senate 'Torture' Report Summary to Be Declassified in a Few Days," a Reuters headline reported Tuesday, complete with scare quotes around the word "torture." In the article, journalist Mark Hosenball reported that "CIA's use of harsh 'enhanced interrogation' methods such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning, on a handful of prisoners, and other stress tactics on a larger set of captured militants, did not produce any significant counter-terrorism breakthroughs." The next paragraph helpfully noted that, "Human rights activists and CIA critics, including some U.S. politicians, have described the CIA's techniques as torture." Near the end, Hosenball explained where "the militants subjected to enhanced interrogation" -- with no scare quotes this time -- were captured.

It has been more than 10 years since pictures from Abu Ghraib first revealed the U.S. was torturing detainees. Since that time we've seen the CIA's own inspector general describe how CIA exceeded the limits set by the Department of Justice and the CIA. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse laid out the U.S. court precedent -- ignored by John Yoo when he rubber-stamped CIA's torture while at the Department of Justice -- that concluded waterboarding is torture. Gitmo's own convening authority, Susan Crawford, admitted in 2009 we tortured Mohammed al-Qahtani at the prison. A top British court called our treatment of detainee Binyam Mohammed "at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," making it a violation of the Convention Against Torture. The European Union Court of Human Rights declared Poland complicit in our torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri. And we've seen Republicans -- both those voting for and against the declassification of the torture report -- calling CIA's torture "torture."

It is no longer controversial. Many independent and even interested parties have deemed the CIA's torture torture.

And yet journalists (Hosenball is by no means the only one) still use the Bush administration's euphemism, "enhanced interrogation," as if using the language of propaganda somehow marks them as objective reporters. They still introduce torture by insinuating that only human rights advocates or CIA (or Bush) critics would consider all this torture. They still wield scare quotes to separate such nasty issues from their own journalistic voice.

Many journalists and news outlets continue to use a euphemism to describe torture long after independent arbiters have deemed it as such.

The torture report, when it is revealed, will confirm a lot of what we've known for at least five years. CIA lied to Congress about the program. The program wasn't effective. The CIA did more than was laid out in the torture memos approved by DOJ.

It's laughable to call this "enhanced" interrogation, given that it proved less effective -- again, according to the Senate torture report and other independent reports -- than plain old interrogation.

Those details all condemn the CIA and the Bush administration's torture architects and the failures of oversight that let torture continue for years. They serve as a warning that the most aggressive responses to terrorism may in fact be counterproductive.

But the recent history of America's torture also damns the conventions of journalism that strive so hard for some kind of fake balance that still prefers a term that obscures the truth over one that accurately describes it.

Don't get me wrong: We owe our knowledge of torture to some of the best journalists in the business, people like Jane Mayer and Dana Priest and Adam Goldman.

But as soon as coverage moved beyond that superb investigative work to coverage of the politics of torture -- to the journalists who should hold those who implemented torture accountable -- we remain mired in obscurantist language.

Which brings us to the torture report result the press might take most seriously.

According to McClatchy, in addition to misleading Congress, DOJ and the White House, the torture report concludes that the CIA also fed misleading information to the press: "[T]he news media were manipulated with leaks that tended to blunt criticism of the agency."

Part of this manipulation (one the White House participated in) involved convincing the press to call torture something else, something it's not. Enhanced interrogation. Harsh treatment.

Anything but torture.

For 10 years, journalists have willingly perpetuated this linguistic absurdity, even as more evidence came out proving the CIA used torture and not some fluffed up interrogation process, even as more and more neutral arbiters judged our torture torture.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has spent five years trying to understand and come to grips with the torture done in our name. Isn't it time for journalists to do the same?

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

MORE FROM Marcy Wheeler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Enhanced Interrogation Guantanamo Bay Media Criticism Torture