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The Gray Lady’s Torture Problem

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On Wednesday, the New York Times had another psychotic episode. The paper’s editorial page has been an eloquent voice on the national stage regarding torture. But often enough the news it relies upon for its editorials never finds its way into its reporting–and its reporting on the issue is not only consistently left in the dust by its competition (particularly by the Washington Post), but, often enough, is not much more than half-baked gossip. That’s the case with this piece by Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane. The story could have grappled with the many subtle and complex policy issues that the incoming administration faces in implementing its no-torture pledge at the CIA. Instead, however, the authors treat us to what sounds suspiciously like an extended pouting session from the camp of John O. Brennan.

Brennan and his friends obviously believe that rejecting him is a slap in the face to all veterans of the war on terror–an absurd proposition that the Times then proceeds to treat as indisputable fact. But the Times‘s language is even more revealing. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the Times chokes and sputters and is unable to mouth the word “torture.” As I discovered in studying the paper’s reporting over a period of year, when a neighbor plays his stereo too loudly in the apartment next door, that is “torture.” But when a man is stripped of his clothing, chained to the floor in a short-shackle position, subjected to sleep deprivation and alternating cold and heat, and left to writhe in his own feces and urine—that, in the world of the Times, is just an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Shane and Mazzetti do us one better in this piece. Figures who criticize torture and Brennan’s fitness to be DCI are, we learn, the “left wing of the Democratic Party.” That’s a remarkable characterization for a group that is led by retired generals and admirals, as well as many of the nation’s most prominent religious leaders.

But the most striking thing about the piece is that the authors obviously don’t have a clue about what’s going on inside the Obama transition team. And on that, I extend my congratulations to camp Obama, which is doing a laudable job of keeping its deliberations to itself.

I discuss the piece further with Charles Kaiser at Columbia Journalism Review here.

Update: Senator Feinstein Was Misquoted

But wait: it gets even better. The Times writers were busy yesterday explaining that the key news value of their story was its disclosure that two senators, most notably Californian Diane Feinstein, the incoming chair of the intelligence committee, were backing off the Obama team’s “no torture” pledge. Spencer Ackerman checked the quote attributed to Feinstein in the Times article, and discovered that one key sentence had been hacked off, creating the false impression that Feinstein was opposing the uniform anti-torture approach for which she had voted in the current session. Here’s the text that the Times elided: “my intent is to pass a law that effectively bans torture, complies with all laws and treaties, and provides a single standard across the government.” So when will the Times correct its distorted reporting? And what exactly were Mazzetti and Shane up to with this very bizarre submission?

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