The Triumph of NewSpeak

We are now so deep into the era of Newspeak that otherwise sensible New York Times journalists can pen stuff like what follows without blinking. And editors run it. On page 23, which puts it one page ahead of the story that some woman who ran off because she couldn't face her wedding was not in fact murdered by the fiancé the left behind.

Inquiry Finds Abuses at Guantánamo Bay: A high-level military investigation into accusations of detainee abuse at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has concluded that several prisoners were mistreated or humiliated, perhaps illegally, as a result of efforts to devise innovative methods to gain information, senior military and Pentagon officials say.

Perhaps illegally! Perhaps!

The F.B.I. agents wrote in memorandums that were never meant to be disclosed publicly that they had seen female interrogators forcibly squeeze male prisoners' genitals, and that they had witnessed other detainees stripped and shackled low to the floor for many hours.

Perhaps illegally? Do we presume the FBI would lie about being an eyewitness to this? Or is there some theory in why the forcible squeezing of a prisoner's, whether POW or not, genitals – regardless of the gender of the abuser — is now arguably legal?

… A senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been completed, said that the inquiry centered on what procedures were used at Guantánamo and why interrogators thought they were acceptable. The official said there was no evidence of physical mistreatment, but investigators were examining whether interrogators improperly humiliated prisoners or used psychological abuse.

There they go again “no evidence of physical mistreatment”? What's a series of FBI reports? Chopped liver?

The Pentagon official said that the Schmidt report found that some interrogators devised plans that they thought were legal and proper, but in hindsight and with some clearer judgment might have been found to violate permissible standards.

Just how much “hindsight and clearer judgment” does it take to figure out that having “female interrogators forcibly squeeze male prisoners' genitals” is not “legal and proper”? Just asking.

“People determined which interrogation technique they would use, made interrogation plans and wrote them out,” the Pentagon official said. “In retrospect, however, how they applied those judgments to a particular technique is what one might want to question.”

That sort of equivocation rings a bell.

The war “did not turn in Japan's favor, and trends of the world were not advantageous to us.”

— Emperor Hirohito, Aug. 15, 1945

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14 Responses to The Triumph of NewSpeak

  1. ant says:

    I’ll tell you how it is “arguably” legal. You just have to exert yourself a bit to get into our attorney general’s mindset: It is arguably legal because anything the commander-in-chief does via his agents in the armed forces or the chief executive does via his agents in the executive branch, if done for purposes arguably related to national security, is unarguably legal as an expression of his powers as commander/chief which derive from English common law principles recognizing the authority of the sovereign.

    Of course, you pretty much have to toss out the Constitution to get there, but that’s what A.G. would have us do. And Alberto G. merely is echoing the arguments of W. Rhenquist (writing for the DOJ) in a certain pre-Watergate wiretapping case in the 6th Circuit (the citation for which I don’t right off recall –arguing that warrantless wiretapping by the executive for national security purposes was not prohibited by statutes purporting to require warrants). The 6th Circuit rightly rejected the approach, taking note that the president is not the king by virtue of the ‘revolutionary war’ and Constitution. But the ‘meme,’ if you will, still hums along and is the basis of quite a lot of the current administration’s modus operandi. We’re in power, so we can do what we want to, rules be damned.

    Take Bolton’s nomination for ambassador to the UN as just one of many examples–many of those holding the reins of government right now are those who have been questioning the very legitimacy of the government to begin with. They don’t mind using the apparatus of government to destroy it and remake it in a different image.

    Trouble is, the mainstream press has a hard time calling them on it, for institutional reasons. So we get lots of parroting of the administration’s self-justification instead of real analysis. You are right–a real journalist would’ve called the acts “certainly illegal” and a real news editor would’ve spanked him for not saying so.


  2. Leslie Turek says:

    While I strongly oppose what went on an Guantanamo, I’m not sure I can agree with your castigating of the NY Times in regard to this particular story. Could “perhaps illegally” just possibly be another way of saying “alleged”? That is, an example of a newspaper not wanting to declare something illegal until it’s proven so in the courts. You know, the old “innocent until proven guilty” theory. I’m assuming this was in a news story rather than an op-ed or opinion piece. In the rest of the story, they are quoting pentagon officials without further comment. This all seems appropriate in a news story. It’s the pentagon officials who are making the outrageous assertions, not the newspaper.

  3. michael says:

    I assumed that the “perhaps illegally” was the report’s characterization, or the officers’ characterization of the report, not the newspaper’s.

    Usually, if we want to say alleged, we say the facts are alleged. But there’s often not much doubt that as to the legal significance of the facts if proved. Example: Mr. Smith is killed by a gunshot through the heart. There is no sign of a struggle. In the absence of a claim such as self-defense (the sorts of defenses that don’t likely apply to Guantanamo) there’s not going to be much doubt that someone committed a murder. Say Mr. Jones is arrested. We say Jones is the alleged murderer because there may be dispute as to whether it is in fact Jones who pulled the trigger, now because there’s much doubt that someone committed a crime.

    Here the military’s claim seems to be something other than that the FBI’s account of the facts are in doubt (except in the bit I quoted later, where the FBI facts just seem to have been ignored), but that the report-writers doubt that given the alleged facts, they make out a crime. And if that had been the issue you’d expect the report, or the report of the report, to focus on the accuracy of the facts, not their legal effects.

  4. notherbob2 says:

    ant writes that it is the job a journalists and editors to act as judge and jury before publishing accounts of news events and to incorporate their verdict into the description of the event. Of course, that would leave trusting readers ignorant of the fact that there was something at issue. Michael’s post appears to demand that stories like this receive that treatment.
    Unfortunately, one element of the shot-in-the-heart example was omitted (well, suicide was not considered, but that is irrelevant). What about intent? What about context and circumstances?
    A humvee may run a traffic light to avoid insurgents arming and aiming an RPG. According to Michael’s reasoning, it is an open and shut case for disciplinary action against the driver of the humvee, the ONLY issue being: did the FBI observe the infraction. If they did, nail that driver and also nail everyone in the chain of command, for are they not ultimately responsible for the behavior of their subordinates? Operating a humvee in combat and interrogating prisoners are both circumstances that do not respond well to reductionism.
    “War hath no fury like a non-combatant.”
    Charles Edward Montague, 1867-1928

  5. ant says:

    notherbob2 seems to misunderstand what is going on here. A journalist has a choice of reporting what she’s told or reporting what she digs around and discovers is the case in fact. It’s the difference between being the newsworthy subjects’ typing service (“administrative officials reportedly said ‘x'”) and being a journalist who reports what happened (“our investigation determined y” even though administration officials told us “x”). Which journalist is doing her job? And which editor is asking the journalist to do her job? And this journalist did not do either that–“possibly illegal” doesn’t even say who thinks it might not be so.

    In the murder case, the questions are what happened and whether what happened constitutes murder. The good journalist could report “found with a bullet in his chest, no signs of struggle, police presume murder, perhaps it was an accident or suicide, investigations continue.”
    In the abuse case, which is what we’re talking about, if the admitted actions occurred, they were illegal as I understand the law in question. The question could be whether they happened at all, but that much is admitted from the start. If there is something at issue here, the journalist in question certainly didn’t educate his readers just what that something is.

    Now, bob2, explain to us how the admitted abuse might not actually be illegal (and let’s not abandon the rule of law to do it), instead of interposing a distraction as absurd as running a red light in Bagdad. That ain’t the discussion here. May I propose an actual journalist could use “the actions would be illegal unless . . . ” or “Mr. X argues that the actions are not illegal because . . .” as a way to start off?


  6. notherbob2 says:

    Er….see initial comment above by ant. Simply remove irony/sarcasm (both are tough to correctly identify in comments, but I believe I have them right). I believe that journalists “educating” readers in news stories is the, ugh, problem, ant, not the solution. Their “educating” should be confined to the op-ed pages.

  7. ant says:

    Really, bob2? You’re saying that a journalist is supposed to report something without investigating what actually happened or what actually are the facts or what actually is the nature of the controversy or even whether the asserted occurrence has any basis in fact? What use is that? A typing service.

    Journalists serve me by informing me–and if I don’t already know it, that’s educating me–about what is going on. Op-ed pages are for giving opinions, not educating readers about what is going on. Journalist: this is the proposal but the proposal doesn’t address the problem/this is the proposal and our investigation shows there is doubt that it addresses the problem. Op-ed: something really ought to be done about the problem other than the proposal but the proposal ain’t a bad idea.

    If the journalist is writing down what someone else says without checking it out, the journalist is nothing but a conduit, and that’s poor service. If the journalist writes down “possibly illegal” in this context, the journalist does not serve anyone unless the guilty–or the reader–needs to be shielded from the ascertainable truth. “Reductionism” isn’t at issue, it’s the job that’s at issue. Is there an argument that the actions are not illegal? Find out who says so, get the position, and give it to the reader. notherbob2, surely even you don’t want a journalist who’d merely jot down the party line and move on, would you?


  8. notherbob2 says:

    “Even” me? Why are you positioning me at the far edge of something? Or is everyone who raises a question about your expressed opinions subject to minimization? Can you envision a critic who might be a reasonable person raising a reasonable question about one of your (obviously heartfelt) opinions? Any Journalism 101 text refutes your initial argument of what a journalist is supposed to be. You are obviously aware of that fact because your following comments constitute crab-walking toward a more reasonable (although arguably not pertinent) position. What if your original statements (“…a real journalist would’ve called the acts “certainly illegal” and a real news editor would’ve spanked him for not saying so.”) had not been questioned? Criticism is the value you bring to the journalist you criticized and that I hoped to bring to you. Have a logical friend evaluate your comments. Perhaps I am the one whose logic needs correcting.

  9. ant says:

    No far-edge minimization intended, bob2, none at all. “Even you” refers to, well, you, the one who apparently was discounting the idea that a journalist might educate his reader as to what is going on as opposed to punting, not serving the reader, and typing up government press releases without question. Educating is the job, not the problem. Crab-walking, am I? Certainly not. What we have here was certainly illegal, and the journalist should be expected to say so, unless we have someone saying it was not cogently. If we had someone saying it was not, it’s incumbent on the journalist to say who and say what the argument is. This is the rough equivalent of reporting a carjacking at gunpoint and telling the readers that the action is “possibly illegal”–which does not serve the reader, by creating an air of doubt. That is quite the opposite of what you seem to be complaining about “leaving trusting readers” ignorant of a dispute–is there a dispute here to write about? You don’t seem to be disputing that there is not.

    Just how many Journalism 101 texts have you read lately, amigo? Are you seriously trying to have us believe that journalism classes are teaching journalism students not to try to discern and report the truth? You still seem to be confusing ‘educating’ through reporting and ‘editorializing,’ and that’s the hole in your reasoning on the role of the journalist. Of course, these days, FOX and CNN do plenty of mixing of editorializing with their reporting, so I can see how you might misunderstand the roles, but all I’m asking the journalist to do is to answer the question they implicitly pose when they write something like “possibly x.” Is it x or is it not? If we can’t tell, why not? Nowhere near judge or jury. In this case, we can tell. It’s plain, and the journalist failed us for that reason.

    So, with all due respect, just what is your reasonable criticism? I welcome it. Just don’t try to stretch an argument about whether x is illegal and should be reported as such into some monster of a journalist as judge and jury. I can forgive the hyperbole, if you can recognize it as such.


  10. notherbob2 says:

    My, ant, you are adept at positioning, aren’t you? Since you refuse to engage until you have positioned yourself for the slam dunk I have no choice but to desist. You seem to be about winning rather than learning. Michael was so enraged by the original article that he made an error in logic while expressing his distaste. Much as he dislikes it, there is another side to the argument about what is appropriate treatment of terrorist captives. Is it morally right or perhaps better than his opinion? I certainly don’t know. Maybe not. I do know that demanding that newspapers actively take one side of a controversial issue in their news reporting and, in fact, urging them to refuse to simply report facts in a news story involving a controversial issue seems to me to be out of order, regardless of the issue and whether they are right or wrong. But I do run on….Sorry.

  11. michael says:

    If anyone wants to suggest that torturing captives by squeezing their genitals is the “[]other side to the argument about the appropriate treatment of terrorist captives” — and that’s alleged terrorists by the way, as many of the Guantanamo detainees were just victims, not guilty of much or anything and certainly at the relevant time denied the minimum of process by which they might persuade their captors of their innocence — then I suggest that the people making that suggestion are about as low as any terrorist. And that they should know better.

    No wonder you use a pseudonym: your view that it is OK to abuse human beings in this manner is repulsive and shameful, I don’t in the least mind saying so. It is, quite simply, uncivilized.

    We are talking here about the treatment of prisoners in the full control of their captors. Not about rules of engagement in the free fire zone formerly known as Iraq. Let’s stick to the point: FBI agents reported in internal memos that they personally witnessed what can only be called torture — even if it didn’t leave permanent physical marks — at a US military prison. That’s serious.

  12. notherbob2 says:

    Michael, I know that you ache to engage someone on the other side of this torture issue. However, even your ad hominem comments cannot put me there. I might be persuaded to take up that cause… Perhaps if you directed me to your archives where you have decried the issue, which I believe to be a serious issue, of the barbarity of terrorists sawing off the heads of non combatants while videotaping these acts for propaganda use. It is my view that any citizen of the world becoming publicly incensed about Guantanamo while remaining absolutely silent about atrocities committed against non combatants is ill equipped to handle a serious discussion of torture issues. Using torture issues for purely political purposes is distasteful for me. On the other hand, I love to discuss the inappropriateness of press spinning in news stories. Guess I didn’t need to tell you that

  13. michael says:

    I believe that the barbarity of those we believe to be our enemies is irrelevant to our moral obligations to treat prisoners humanely, and to our similar legal obligations under US law, under the relevant treaties, and under the US Constitution.

    Thus I see no relevance in engaging in discussions designed to distract from our duties and behavior to our captives, duties which persist regardless of the criminality of those we capture. Let us stipulate for the sake of the argument that the victims of US torture are the worst of the worst, even though we know for a fact that some are just poor schnooks who got sold out by someone wanting a bounty. No matter if they are top Al Qaeda operatives. They are still human beings. And we are still — I hope — a nation of laws. Torturing them demeans us, violates our principles, our laws, and our obligations. (There’s also considerable reason to believe torture not effective at getting reliable information as compared to being nice, but that’s besides the point we’re arguing about; I’d make the same case even if there were some evidence torture sometimes works.)

    Is complaining about torture of our captives by our military and intelligence agencies “party political”? In one sense, clearly not: it’s above politics. (And indeed, officially, neither party purports to condone torture.) It’s a moral issue and an issue of national honor. Furthermore, while it’s true that the US’s policy of encouraging/condoning/closing-eyes-toward torture happened at a time that the Republicans control the Executive branch and both houses of Congress, so that they are the most to blame, it’s also true that many Senate Democrats — with some honorable exceptions! — have not been profiles in courage on this subject either. (The vote on Gonzales comes to mind.)

    Yet, the issue is ‘political’ to this extent: politicians who fail to speak up against torture don’t deserve re-election. It is just and necessary to criticize current office-holders who have both failed to prevent torture, and so far failed to punish those beneath them who ordered, accepted, or at least failed to prevent, torture. Today, this critique will impact Republicans more than Democrats since more of the Republicans have chosen to support, or failed to clearly oppose, the torture policy of the current administration. (And, at least as regards the CIA, it’s pretty clearly a policy, not an accident, see Marty Lederman’s excellent work on the subject.) But isn’t fundamental questions like this what ‘politics’ is for and should be about?

  14. ant says:

    You’ve done it again, notherbob2, you’ve gone way off track of what is being discussed.

    Torture IS illegal. The alleged acts constitute torture. A journalist should call a spade a spade.

    From your last reference to ‘spin’ I can only conclude that you think the acts are not illegal (make the argument, please), that it’s wrong to call a spade a spade, or that reporting the facts is a political act. Which, amigo, which?

    “It is my view that any citizen of the world becoming publicly incensed about Guantanamo while remaining absolutely silent about atrocities committed against non combatants is ill equipped to handle a serious discussion of torture issues.” I’m incensed. What’s further, is that atrocities were being committed against noncombatants right there in Gitmo. What’s further, I’m not silent about any atrocities committed against anyone I’m aware of. You are trying to argue with a straw man you won’t find. That comment is right there on the slope that gets you to justifying torture. How far down are you willing to slide? Any person willing to discuss the relative merits of torture conducted on one side or the other is the least equipped to seriously discuss the issue. Any person willing to support US personnel in making the decision to torture US prisoners is selling this country and its ideals very very short.


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