A "Brutal" Switch on C.I.A. Interrogation Semantics

The Times steps up the rhetoric to show its disapproval of the C.I.A.'s interrogation tactics against Al Qaeda terrorist suspects.

The C.I.A.'s interrogation methods againstAl Qaeda terrorist suspects include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and crashing their bodiesagainst "walls" that turn out to be false, flexible ones. The Times has long marked its disapprovalof such tactics and has recently stepped up its rhetoric,recently calling the methods "brutal" in several front-page stories, including one Wednesday by David Johnston and Scott Shane that featured "brutal interrogations" in the first paragraph.

The emotionally loaded characterization of the C.I.A.'s interrogation methods as "brutal" was first deployed by the Times in an April 10 front-page story by Scott Shane, and more prominently a week later in an April 17 front-page story by Shane and Mark Mazzetti using the word in a headline: "Memos Spell Out Brutal C.I.A. Mode of Interrogation." Since April 10, the paper has used the term in 16 stories about C.I.A. interrogation, stepping up from the paper's previous favorite descriptor, "harsh."

Public Editor Clark Hoyt seemed quite proud of his paper's new aggressiveness, writing in his April 26 column:

A linguistic shift took place in this newspaper as it reported the details of how the Central Intelligence Agency was allowed to strip Al Qaeda prisoners naked, bash them against walls, keep them awake for up to 11 straight days, sometimes with their arms chained to the ceiling, confine them in dark boxes and make them feel as if they were drowning.

Until this month, what the Bush administration called "enhanced" interrogation techniques were "harsh" techniques in the news pages of The Times. Increasingly, they are "brutal." (On the editorial page, they long ago added up to "torture.")

The choice of a single word involved separate deliberations in New York and the Washington bureau and demonstrated the linguistic minefields that journalists navigate every day in the quest to describe the world accurately and fairly. In a polarized atmosphere in which many Americans believe the nation betrayed its most fundamental ideals in the name of fighting terror and others believe extreme measures were necessary to save lives, The Times is displeasing some who think "brutal" is just a timid euphemism for torture and their opponents who think "brutal" is too loaded.

Hoyt's attempt at a balanced presentation is itself unbalanced. Supporters of the C.I.A.'s interrogation measures probably don't consider them "extreme measures." Hoyt explained:

The word had appeared a few times before in this context, most recently on April 10, when the Central Intelligence Agency said it was closing the network of secret overseas prisons where interrogations took place. Scott Shane, who covers national security, said he and his editor in the Washington bureau, Douglas Jehl, negotiated over the wording of the first paragraph. Shane wrote that methods used in the prisons were "widely denounced as illegal torture." Jehl changed that to the "harshest interrogation methods" since the Sept. 11 attacks. Shane said he felt that with more information coming to light, including a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the words harsh and even harshest no longer sufficed. He proposed brutal, and Jehl agreed.

A week later, Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, came to her own conclusion that the facts supported a stronger word than harsh after she read just-released memos from the Bush-era Justice Department spelling out the interrogation methods in detail and declaring them legal. The memos were repudiated by President Obama.

"Harsh sounded like the way I talked to my kids when they were teenagers and told them I was going to take the car keys away," said Abramson, who consulted with several legal experts and talked it over with Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief. Abramson and Baquet agreed that "brutal" was a better word. From rare use now and then, it had gone to being the preferred choice. The result of that decision was this top headline in the printed paper of April 17: "Memos Spell Out Brutal C.I.A. Mode of Interrogation."

Hoyt's opinion is clear:

I have read the Justice Department memos - by turns clinical about inflicting pain and oddly solicitous about diaper rash. It is a disquieting experience. Reporters and editors need to leave moral and political judgments to editorial writers and readers, but they cannot be so detached that they appear oblivious to the implications of the facts.

Hoyt concluded "the word brutal is accurate and appropriate, whether you think the acts were justified or not."

An April 22 lead news story by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti laid on editorial moralizing:

Leaked to the news media months after they were first used, the C.I.A.'s interrogation methods would darken the country's reputation, blur the moral distinction between terrorists and the Americans who hunted them....

By contrast, the Washington Post has yet to use the term "brutal" in its news stories to describe the interrogations methods, beyond one use in an April 29 story to characterize a detainee's allegations against the C.I.A.