In 2002, the CIA waterboarded terrorism suspect Abu Zubaydah 83 times. The next year, the CIA waterboarded terrorism suspect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times. This procedure, in which the subject is strapped down and water is poured down his throat, meets any reasonable definition of torture.
Yet the Bush administration insisted on using euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" to describe the procedure. And for the last decade, the nation's most prominent newspaper followed suit, describing the procedures as "harsh" or "brutal" but avoiding the T-word.
The new editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, is finally admitting the obvious: CIA agents engaged in torture. Unfortunately, the Times is making this concession only after it's too late to do much good — the president isn't going to prosecute those responsible so late in his presidency. And Baquet still won't admit that the paper made a mistake by denying the obvious for so long.
Baquet writes that "when the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky." The details might have been murky when information about the CIA's actions emerged a decade ago. But the situation has been relatively clear for a long time. We've known that the CIA engaged in waterboarding and other torture techniques since at least 2005.
In 2008, Christopher Hitchens volunteered to undergo waterboarding and wrote a searing description of the experience. "Waterboarding is a deliberate torture technique and has been prosecuted as such by our judicial arm when perpetrated by others," he wrote.
A key turning point in the torture debate came in the early months of the Obama administration. The new president had to decide whether to prosecute Bush Administration officials for torturing terrorism suspects. At the time, the New York Times was still describing the CIA's actions as "harsh interrogation techniques," not torture. The Times's decision to downplay the seriousness of the CIA's actions made it easier for Obama to decide, in April 2009, that he wouldn't prosecute those who had been responsible.
We don't know if the president would have made a different decision if the Times and other elite media organizations had eschewed euphemisms. But failing to describe the CIA's actions as torture certainly reduced political pressure on Obama (and before him, President Bush) to hold those who engaged in torture responsible for their actions. In the process, the Times did its readers a disservice, failing to clearly and accurately explain to them what their government had done in their name.