Friday, March 5, 2010

A military investigator takes on Thiessen

A fascinating essay in which a military investigator points out Marc Thiessen's errors is here; excerpt:

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.


  1. May God Bless Marc Theissen... don't entertain the left wing kooks Marc, EWTN made the right choice in not letting these people in the door.

  2. RE: St. Peter

    "EWTN made the right choice in not letting these people in the door"

    The real question of course is who St. Peter will let enter his door?

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  3. don't entertain the left wing kooks Marc

    It's more complicated than a mere list, but I am:

    Anti-pornography (as in should be illegal)
    Anti-same-sex marriage
    Anti-in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothering, etc.
    Anti-embryonic stem-cell research
    For a moratorium on Islamic immigration
    For tightly regulated borders
    An Anthropogenic global warming denier
    Opposed to government confiscatory programs masquerading as health care plans
    Sympathetic to unconstitutional monarchy

    So who are these left-wing kooks of whom you speak?

    Scott W.

  4. Let me ask a question, one that is a genuine question and not a rhetorical one, and also a question I think the Coalition for Clarity should have an answer to:

    How do we discuss torture with someone who thinks opposing torture makes you a left-wing kook?

    I'm not asking how we debate such a person. To win a debate, all we need to do is make sure he states his opinion clearly.

    I'm asking how we engage him in a way that we may together arrive at the truth, to use an expression I like.

  5. I have yet to bump into a torture advocate who I would consider a true political conservative.

    In the first place it is almost impossible to define to everyone's satisfaction the political left or political right. Most of my military and law enforcement friends and associates would be defined as right wing by liberals. But these same friends and associates are appalled that the USA has sunk so low as to engage in torture.

    Also a follower of Jesus Christ walks in his Master's footsteps never veering (but often stumbling) to either the political right or left. A political party is a man made, faliable institution. It cannot perfectly contain all of Christian tradition and the Church's teachings on faith and morals.

    We should,it seems to me, define ourselves first as Christians, then as Americans and finally as to political affiliation.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  6. How do we discuss torture with someone who thinks opposing torture makes you a left-wing kook?

    I suppose a systematic list of counterexamples might be one approach.

    Believing that what we did "didn't rise to the level of" torture and that the only people who think it was torture are left wing crackpots is a pretty strong comfort zone to be in for whole swaths of people. And in my experience comfort zones are far, far stronger than argument.

  7. How do we discuss torture with someone who thinks opposing torture makes you a left-wing kook?

    I wonder sometimes if we actually can have a discussion with these people. Labeling us as "left-wing kooks," coupled with how they engage in these comboxes, leads me to believe that these people are not interested in discussion and are more concerned with making politically motivated, drive-by comments.

  8. Tom -

    I agree that CfC should have an answer to your question, but this member at least does not.

    I try to avoid making assumptions about the other person - especially assuming ill-will. I try to answer their questions or accusations directly, or to ask what they mean if I don't understand them. I also try to explain my own reasoning as clearly as possible, and using different words or examples, so that there are more possibilities to make a connection.

    However, if someone is dead-set against even listening to what I say, there is nothing I can do about that.

  9. "But these same friends and associates are appalled that the USA has sunk so low as to engage in torture."

    Yea, never mind those 40 million unborn babies that have been killed legally in the USA.

    That's why you kooks are not taken seriously.

  10. So maybe a sub-question is, how do we get someone who thinks opposing torture makes you a left-wing kook to understand that people can and do oppose both torture and abortion? As Scott's comment most recently demonstrates, it's not enough to point out to such a person that he is wrong on the facts.

  11. My thought, Tom, is that you can approach it in two ways. The first way would be to start with "first things first." The first thing would be to distinguish just what is the purpose of the conversation. You could talk about how political expediency and the way that the political system in America works (on a platform-based party system) is a separate question. Even after various issues' morality has been discerned and debated, the decision as to how someone votes and what the prudent political decisions are is another matter - we'll admit up front that there is a certain picking of battles to be done and that how to decide which front to fight on first (e.g., abortion or torture or war or economics) is a matter for a separate discussion.

    This having been done, you can move to the present discussion, which is to discuss the immediately relevant moral criterion involved in torture, and the pertinent questions about fundamental human dignity, etc. This requires discipline from both parties, and begs that neither employ "slippery slope" arguments or even relevant analogies that would serve as too much of a departure from the task (such as comparisons with abortion, etc).

    That's the first possibility. A second option, I would say, is to invite a "thought experiment." Imagine a Catholic man from say, Richmond, VA from 1800 (just say), 1850, 1900, 1950, 2000. If you got them all together around a pub table using a time machine, they might be remarkably surprised with one another's political attachments. But if you got them on the "back side" of politics, and they started talking about the issues in the only intelligible way they could (because of their diversity in political climate and background), you would find that they'd be largely in agreement as to the substantive issues of the day and the moral implications with regard to their faith. Then invite your friends to try reasoning with you in the same spirit.

  12. "Yea, never mind those 40 million unborn babies that have been killed legally in the USA.

    That's why you kooks are not taken seriously."

    Jaspar: another "kook", JP ,called this phenomena the culture of death. We, as Christians, have to oppose all violations of the 5th Commandment. It is interesting to note that the USA won WWI, WWII and the Cold War at a time when both torture and abortion were illegal.

    So who is Jaspar going to follow? Are you going to be a disciple of JP II or Jack Bauer? Upon which figure, objectively speaking, are you going to bet your immortal soul?

    And, as for not being taken seriously, U.S Army FM 34-52 is now the law of the land. The intelligence professional have won out over imaginary characters like Jack Bauer and out of work White House speech writers. We now have a chance to win the current war.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford