The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogations has renewed an old debate: whether or not to call those interrogation techniques -- and in particular, the practice of waterboarding -- "torture."

Waterboarding is a technique in which a person's face is covered with a cloth and water poured over it, which makes the subject feel as though he or she is drowning. (Tapes of CIA interrogations using the technique -- destroyed by the agency -- reportedly showed subjects screaming and vomiting afterward.)

In 2010, students at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government published a report looking specifically at how media outlets referred to waterboarding. The Harvard research indicates that media outlets that addressed waterboarding over time were less likely to refer to it as torture when performed by the United States. (That study did not include The Washington Post.) The graph below, for example, shows how the New York Times dealt with waterboarding over time. The question of the United States' use of the practice began shortly after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.


The Times's use of "torture" versus other terms like "interrogation" or "enhanced interrogation" was already well-worn rhetorical ground by 2010. When the paper first reported on "harsh CIA methods" used against leaders of al-Qaeda, it didn't use the word "torture" at all. In 2009, the paper's public editor noted a shift from describing tactics like waterboarding as "harsh" to calling them "brutal." Last year, the current public editor asked the paper's associate managing editor for standards to explain why it didn't use the term "torture." "The word torture, aside from its common sense meaning, has specific legal meaning and ramifications,” Philip Corbett said. “Part of the debate is on that very point.”

The legal justification for the George W. Bush administration to conduct interrogations that included waterboarding stemmed in part from a memo provided by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales in August 2002. Among its 50 pages is this phrase, articulating the outer boundaries of what Bybee argued could be done to a subject without his being "tortured." In other words: This was the "specific legal meaning" as the administration understood it.


By 2004, the Justice Department had expanded its definition outward, to include acts that were harmful to a standard lower than Bybee's. Media outlets aren't beholden to the administration's definition of what is or isn't torture, much less to whether or not certain acts open CIA agents to international criminal charges. But part of the debate, as Corbett pointed out, was on that point.

The 2004 revision, it's worth noting, was timed to coincide with the nomination of Gonzales as attorney general. As the definition of "torture" as articulated by the Bush administration changed, reports about the interrogations also polarized politics at large. Defenders of the administration argued that what had been done wasn't torture. Critics argued that it was. And how media outlets referred to the practice became a political issue.

Most media outlets have tried to figure out where to draw the line. NPR's ombudsman addressed it in 2009, outlining the six ways in which use of "torture" was considered by the agency. After the Harvard report was released, media reporter Brian Stelter reached out to Cameron Barr, then The Post's national security editor (He's now the national editor). "After the use of the term ‘torture’ became contentious," Barr said, "we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration. But we often cited others describing waterboarding as torture in stories that mentioned the technique." That continues to be The Post's policy; Tuesday's story about the report's release doesn't refer to it as torture -- except when citing President Obama.

There's no question, however, that the use of "torture" to describe waterboarding is now fairly common. The shorthand "torture report" appears to be the way to which the Senate committee's document is most commonly referred -- perhaps thanks in part to its brevity. Liberal journalist Dan Froomkin has collected some instances of how media outlets are referring to the document.

For what it's worth, even during the last years of the Bush administration, as the 2008 presidential campaign ramped up and when the debate over what to call the interrogations was near its peak, articles in the New York Times were far more likely to talk about torture than about "interrogations."


Even before the interrogation/torture report was released, defenders of the CIA's actions (including former members of the CIA and the Bush administration) attacked the still-unseen document. Former vice president Dick Cheney called it "a bunch of hooey," noting that the actions of the CIA were "reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program." Or as his boss put it in 2006: "I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws and it's against our values. I have not authorized it and I will not authorize it."

Depending on your definition.