5. You previously served as a master instructor in the SERE program, in which pilots were prepared, among other things, to endure waterboarding. The SERE training program, we later learned, was reverse engineered to produce “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the CIA. Recently a White House speechwriter named Marc Thiessen has played a vocal role in the campaign that the Cheneys have launched to justify the use of waterboarding. He insists that it absolutely is not torture, and he insists that it’s different from the technique used by the Khmer Rouge. Does Thiessen know what he’s talking about?
I spent twenty years in intelligence and four years in the SERE program waterboarding people before I ever opened my mouth on the subject. Marc Thiessen is a fool of the highest magnitude if he thinks he knows anything about waterboarding. His claims are based not on first-hand experience but on a classified briefing from people with an agenda of justifying what was done. That makes Thiessen into a court stenographer for war criminals rather than a person with any real claim of expertise. As for his claim about the relationship between Pol Pot–era waterboarding and what we have done derived from the SERE program, he’s wrong. Before I arrived at SERE, I went to S21 prison in Cambodia. Right next to the Wall of Skulls sits the exact waterboard platform that the SERE program copied for our own use in the training program. Remember, our goal was to prepare pilots for the techniques they might face if they fell into the hands of our enemies. I was waterboarded on arrival at SERE, and then as a senior staffer, I performed the technique or supervised it through hundreds of evolutions.
Thiessen’s central purpose is apparently to glorify the most extreme practices used by the CIA in the Bush era and to argue that each of these practices, including waterboarding, is vitally necessary to our national security–even though no president used them before, and it seems that President Bush himself halted many of these practices over Cheney’s objection. We have prosecuted and convicted men for using these techniques in the past, and we were right to do so.
This suggests to me that, while he may cite Thomas Aquinas, Thiessen has no sense of honor and no moral compass. I give him credit for his loyalty to the Cheneys, but he’s blind to their errors in judgment. The use of waterboarding and other torture techniques was a powerful recruitment tool for Al Qaeda; it spawned thousands of would-be suicide bombers. Thiessen claims that we gained “intelligence” by using these torture techniques. But this shows that he knows nothing about the intelligence process or how our enemy grows and sustains itself.
Thousands of American POWs died and suffered resisting torture practices that we have always called the tools of the enemy. The SERE program was designed to help them grapple with this inhumanity and retain their dignity in the face of it. Now Thiessen and his boss want us to embrace the tactics we used in that program–taken from the Russians, the Communist Chinese, the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge–as our own. He claims that these techniques are unpleasant but have no long-term physical or mental impact. Really? I challenge him to put up or shut up. I offer to put him through just one hour of the CIA enhanced interrogation techniques that were authorized in the Bush Administration’s OLC memos–including the CIA-approved variant of waterboarding. If at the end he still believes this is not torture, I’ll respect his viewpoint. But not until then. By the way, I can assure you that, within that hour, I’ll secure Thiessen’s written admission that waterboarding is torture and that his book is a pack of falsehoods. He’ll give me any statement I want in order to end the torture.
Thiessen's "evidence" that torture "works" and saved America is almost entirely hearsay from people in legal jeopardy for war crimes. He can't back it up. Some of his claims have been strongly challenged, and others have been outright debunked. Jane Mayer wrote a pretty authoritative debunk of many of Thiessen's claims. Matthew Alexander also challenged him. Dan Froomkin did so back in 2009 here and again here. (Dan Froomkin also took on defenses of torture from The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer.) Thiessen simply doesn't look good when scrutinized by anyone with any independent knowledge or expertise.
Andrew Sullivan, whatever his other eccentricities, has been very good on the torture issue. He took on Thiessen on Catholic grounds in February. He also spotlighted one of Thiessen's central contortions back in April 2009 – Thiessen claims that America did not "torture" specific prisoners, but simultaneously acknowledges that Americans intentionally inflicted pain and suffering on these prisoners to make them talk. Thiessen's still making this claim, although he's not often confronted with the glaring contradiction of how intentionally inflicting pain is not torture. He's also claimed that somehow, the Geneva Conventions don't apply to certain prisoners, which is flatly false under Common Article 3, which outlines baseline treatment for all prisoners (including, shockingly, a ban on torture). Some of Thiessen's arguments are, like his manner, simply childish. (I previously posted on Thiessen's Daily Show appearance, and it will give you a pretty good survey of his favorite bullshit.)
Back in February, Andrew Sullivan noted that, shamefully, The Washington Post had hired Thiessen, and remarked that "If you ever believed for a minute that Dan [Froomkin] was fired for anything but challenging the Krauthammer line on torture, think again." I've said before that Thiessen strikes me as both a hack and a zealot, and an eager propagandist for his party and for torture. His tone is rabidly partisan (even in generic pieces), and his factual claims on torture have been significantly, even fatally, challenged. WaPo editor Fred Hiatt could have read Froomkin's pieces and others debunking Thiessen – and maybe he did – but he still hired the man. How? Why? It's a despicable abdication of both critical and moral judgment.
The torture-loving, tough guy wannabes like Thiessen are bad enough, but the actual culprits in the Bush administration he parrots should be forced to make their arguments under oath in court and back up their claims. As Nance says, put up or shut up. Thiessen's tone is as sanctimonious as his stance is monstrous, but his actual arguments are weak and disjointed, and wouldn't fare well under intense cross-examination. For instance, he's argued that (1) Americans intentionally inflicted pain and suffering on specific prisoners, (2) somehow that wasn't torture, and (3) it was legal to abuse them anyway. Even smarter torture apologists, such as David Rivkin and Lindsay Graham, eventually contradict themselves in some fashion. They're incoherent because their position is untenable. Put the actual culprits on the stand, and let them make their case, if they're able.
The torture gang hasn't been forced to account for themselves, but they haven't been silent in exchange for this leniency. It's been demoralizing to see that, if anything, advocacy for torture, abuse and the destruction of due process seem increasingly en vogue. We currently have various idiots and scumbags running around arguing that we need to do away with due process, and many of the same crew has argued that we should torture suspects like the Underwear Bomber. Like Thiessen, they know that torture and abuse "work" because... they saw it on 24 and Dick Cheney said so. That's it. That's really all they've got. And that's enough for them to commit a war crime. They're driven by fear and desire, not necessity, wisdom or expertise. Torture is immoral and illegal, but also endangers American troops abroad and undermines national security. The Obama administration made a grave mistake in not opening a full torture investigation, and ceded the national debate to people like Thiessen and the Cheney family. Meanwhile, while the conditions for some prisoners may have improved, the Obama administration's stance on human rights isn't looking much better, from the matter of Miranda rights to the black site at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Foreign court cases and media investigations can help, but the real pressure for accountability will have to come from the American citizenry.
(I'm still woefully behind on my torture/human rights blogging, but hope to return to it this June. In any case, the folks I've linked above have dealt with Thiessen in detail quite thoroughly.)