Bill Keller, Still Flailing

Inside the New York Times

[Re-posted from earlier today.]

There was something almost poignant about a post yesterday by former NYT executive editor Bill Keller. It’s his way of explaining why he decided the Times could not use the plain word ‘torture’ to describe torture – when it was conducted by the Bush administration. He conflates the issue with the other t-word, terrorism, as if there were some kind of analogy. There isn’t. What happened in Benghazi was an act of terror, as Obama said the following day. What happened in Boston was an act of terror. The only circumspection about the word should be in the immediate aftermath of explosions when it seems to me prudent not to jump to conclusions. So the fire at the JFK Library Monday was not an act of terror.

The most it can take to reach the conclusion about terror is a few days. Yet the New York Times has refused to use the word ‘torture’ for years in its news pages and is still avoiding it. Keller was behind that decision. Future historians of the press will note how the most powerful single journalistic institution in the country simply caved to government and partisan pressure – even on the use of the English language.

Keller denies this. He says the avoidance of the word was because there was an ongoing debate about the legal meaning of torture, and therefore the NYT should have stayed neutral.

The editors (I was one at the time) argued that what constituted torture was still a matter of debate, that this issue was not just linguistic but legal and had not yet been resolved by a court, and that the word was commonly applied to such a range of practices as to be imprecise. We contended that the best approach was to describe the techniques as fully as possible and let readers draw their own conclusions.

Keller writes that the issue of what torture is “had not yet been resolved by a court”. Really?

Let us take, for example, a torture technique both Bush and Cheney have openly bragged about authorizing: waterboarding. Has no court adjudicated the matter? I refer Keller to page 371 of the Constitution Project report, which details countless examples of US courts finding waterboarding unequivocally to be torture:

In the early 20th century, U.S. Army Captain Elwin Glenn was court-martialed for administering the “water cure” to civilians during the combat operations in the Philippines. Japanese military personnel were convicted of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for using the “water treatment” method on POWs. And several lower-ranking soldiers were convicted of waterboarding, a war crime, in the years following the war.

Several state courts have decided cases involving waterboarding as well. In White v. State, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out a 1922 murder conviction because the defendant’s confession had been obtained using the “water cure.” In that case, men held the appellant down while one stood on him and the other poured water into his nose in order to gain a confession. The court described this treatment as “barbarous” and “brutal treatment,” “causing pain and horror.”

In Cavazos v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals similarly reversed a murder conviction where officers had extracted a confession by coercive means, including the water cure. The Cavazos court found in 1942 that the trial judge had improperly admitted a confession that was “obtained by force and physical and mental torture.”

Four decades after Cavazos, four Texas law-enforcement officers who had waterboarded suspects were convicted of “violating and conspiring to violate the civil rights of prisoners in their custody.” The defendants, a sheriff and three deputies, had “draped a towel over each man’s face and pour[ed] water over it until the men gagged.” While not considering the nature of the treatment itself on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1984 repeatedly described the actions of the sheriff and deputies as “torture.”

While all of the above cases were decided prior to Convention Against Torture’s ratification, U.S. courts have held that waterboarding is a form of torture after the U.S.’s ratification as well. For example, in In re Estate of Ferdinand E. Marcos Human Rights Litigation, the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Hawaii specifically listed waterboarding (or “water cure”) as one form of torture practiced by the Marcos regime, which used such techniques against political dissidents who then brought their claims in U.S. courts when seeking asylum. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit subsequently supported this finding.

The Marcos regime used waterboarding against political dissidents while it was in control of the Philippines, and it was the basis of many claims by victims in the ensuing litigation in American courts.

To repeat: Keller writes in his post that the issue of whether waterboarding was torture “had not yet been resolved by a court.” It had – and in no single case had there been any equivocation at all. Waterboarding was explicitly defined as torture by the Bush State Department and the Convention Against Torture. It is a war crime – or the law and the English language mean nothing. The same is true for a litany of other authorized abuses – which have clear, legal and regulatory status as torture. Will the former editor of the Times correct a factual error?

At any time during his position as NYT executive editor, Mr Keller could also have looked up the legal definition, which is not in dispute:

[A]n act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.

So allow me to remind Mr Keller of what his own newspaper, among others, reported about what was authorized by the president himself:

using dogs to terrorize prisoners; stripping detainees naked and hooding them; isolating people in windowless cells for weeks and even months on end; freezing prisoners to near-death and reviving them and repeating the hypothermia; contorting prisoners into stress positions that create unbearable pain in the muscles and joints; cramming prisoners into upright coffins in painful positions with minimal air; near-drowning, on a waterboard, of human beings—in one case 183 times—even after they have cooperated with interrogators.

And in many cases – it was many of the above combined – and several confirmed cases of being tortured to death. How can anyone not see that these techniques clearly “inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering” on people completely under the government’s control? There is not now and never has been a debate about this.

So why Keller’s bizarre refusal to call it by its proper name? The reason is simple. Keller knew that publishing the word torture with respect to president Bush and his administration was a factual allegation of war crimes. Such an accusation would have caused all the usual suspects to deride the NYT as a left-liberal rag, with a partisan agenda. There would have been huge partisan political blowback. It might also have prevented NYT reporters from getting access to anyone in the Bush administration. Keller basically admits as much:

Now that I reside in the opinion zone, I use the word “torture” without hesitation, but I still believe that editors in the news pages should be a little slow to preempt the judgment of readers, or to use language that carries a suggestion of political posture.

Does the nonpartisan report made public today mean that what is “torture” in the Opinion pages can now be “torture” in the news pages? Has the noun shed some of its partisan freight? Watch that space.

“Language that carries a suggestion of political posture.” But what if that language is the plain truth?

Let me just say that I have a different view of the Fourth Estate than Keller does. I believe that a newspaper should report what it can in plain English, without regard to anyone else’s views on the matter, and whatever the positions of the political parties. It should publish what it deems to be true by its own methods and conclusions.

Keller, in contrast, believes a newspaper should not publish the truth if one political party has decided – arbitrarily and in accord with its own legal self-interests – that there is a “debate” about it. It’s an almost classic Fallowsian “false equivalence” moment. There is, for example, a debate about evolution. Does the NYT use a euphemism because the theory of natural selection is fiercely opposed by a large number of Americans? Does it routinely refer to “the theory of natural selection which many Americans dispute”. Of course not. They can report on polarizing issues in plain English in most cases. But not when something as profound as a president committing war crimes is concerned. Not, in other words, when you really need an independent and free press.

He also writes: “the word was commonly applied to such a range of practices as to be imprecise.” But that reveals a deep misunderstanding of the laws against torture. They are broadly drawn because that was the entire point: to rule out of bounds anything even approaching torture or cruel and inhuman conduct. In 2003, president Bush made the following statement:

I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy.

There you have the president himself defining torture as broadly and clearly as the statute. And yet Keller was incapable of doing the same – out of fear of seeming biased.

To take another specific example of the US government taking this approach to torture, look at the asylum cases decided by the Justice Department and the immigration services under the Department of Homeland Security. You can examine the rules here. There is simply no doubt that an asylum-seeker who had evidence of being waterboarded by a foreign government would be granted asylum by the US. Because he had been tortured. Or imagine if an American soldier were captured by Iran and water-boarded. Would the New York Times refuse to say he was tortured? Seriously?

Keller knew the truth and his newspaper did sterling work in uncovering it. But he refused to tell the legal truth in plain English because he couldn’t take the political whirlwind that would ensue. He’s now searching for an excuse to decide that the issue was once vague but now clear and so we can all move along quietly please.

I’m sorry, but no. Keller needs to take responsibility for a key failure of nerve at a vital moment in the history of basic human rights. In this he is sadly like the president: against torture, except when it might mean serious political headwinds. History will condemn them both – but nothing is more damaging to the reputation of a newspaper than cowardice and equivocation in the face of such glaringly obvious facts.

(Photo: Inside the ‘page one meeting’ with New York Times Editor Bill Keller, May, 2008 in New York City. There are two daily meeting one at 10:30am and the other at 4pm to discuss what stories will be used on the front page of the paper, with the section editors and senior editors. By Jonathan Torgovnik/Edit by Getty Images.)