Thiessen also argues that we will never know what other information we would have gotten out of KSM had we not used torture and abuse. But we do know. We need only examine the success of numerous professional interrogators against high-ranking members of al-Qaida. There is Eric Maddox, the U.S. Army interrogator who located Saddam Hussein (as told in his excellent book Mission: Black List #1).There is also Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who successfully interrogated Abu Zubaydah. In Iraq, my own team successfully interrogated many mid- and high-level leaders of al-Qaida while hunting Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Serious interrogators have little doubt that we would have gotten better information from KSM, and sooner, had the interrogations been conducted by professional interrogators using noncoercive techniques.
Another mischaracterization in Courting Disaster is Thiessen's claim that CIA water-boarding is identical to the water-boarding given American troops in training. Thiessen calls it "absurd" to believe we would torture our own troops. But if it were the same as the training given American troops, detainees would be told beforehand that it's temporary and voluntary; they'd have a codeword to make it stop at any time; and be reassured that it would not harm them permanently. Real water-boarding—unlike resistance training—exploits the real fear of death. The detainee does not know when, or if, it will stop. This is no different than charging the slide of a pistol and pointing it at a prisoner's head. The soldier holding the pistol may have taken precautions (removing the bullets from the magazine and/or getting the Justice Department to produce memos calling it legal), but it's still illegal, as the military courts determined when an American soldier did just this in Afghanistan. Threatening prisoners with death or physical harm is torture. That's precisely why the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Conventions Against Torture, U.S. law, and military regulations prohibit it.
The many omissions from Thiessen's book are also telling. For instance, in citing case law regarding water-boarding as torture, he fails to mention the case of a Texas sheriff and his deputies who were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for water-boarding prisoners. (The John Yoo torture memos conveniently disregarded this precedent as well.) Thiessen states that water-boarding depicted at Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia is different because it involved dunking a prisoner's head in a tub of water. But there is a painting at Tuol Sleng of a victim being tortured in the same position CIA interrogators used. For a man so obsessed with tiny details that define away and excuse torture, Thiessen should have caught a large detail that spotlights it.
As I read this essay, I kept thinking that Marc Thiessen's biggest gamble all along has been to count on the silence of those in the military who are in a position to object to "enhanced interrogation." This piece does a good job of showing the weakness of Thiessen's arguments, especially as viewed by people who are in a position to know better.