No Comment — March 4, 2010, 12:03 pm

Opening for the Defense at a War Crimes Trial

How exactly did Dick Cheney’s speechwriter Marc Thiessen come to write a book justifying waterboarding and other torture techniques–and insisting, moreover, that President Obama is putting the country at risk by stopping the use of these techniques? How does a speechwriter get access to highly classified materials so that he can present what he calls a “behind-the-scenes” look at a program that the CIA has labeled one of its biggest secrets ever? Many of Thiessen’s informants, including the former vice president, are those most likely to be charged and tried in war crimes proceedings if any are ever convened. And that makes Thiessen’s purpose transparent: to defend them. With few well-defined ideas of his own but long aspirations to sit close to power, Thiessen was an odd choice for this role, and his efforts are not having the impact his sponsors had hoped for.

At Slate, Thiessen’s book is reviewed by Matthew Alexander, a star military interrogator who achieved one the most important intelligence breakthroughs of the Iraq conflict, collecting the information that allowed two F-16s to take out Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Alexander starts by asking the obvious question and positing the most plausible answer:

My gut reaction on reading Marc Thiessen’s new book, Courting Disaster, was: “Why is a speechwriter who’s never served in the military or intelligence community acting as an expert on interrogation and national security?” Certainly, everyone is entitled to a voice in the debate over the lawfulness and efficacy of President Bush’s abusive interrogation program, regardless of qualifications. But if you’re not an expert on a subject, shouldn’t you interview experts before expressing an opinion? Instead, Thiessen relies solely on the opinions of the CIA interrogators who used torture and abuse and are thus most vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes.

He dissects a good deal of Thiessen’s argument, starting with his hackneyed claim that waterboarding is not torture, because we regularly waterboard our own service personnel to prepare them to resist torture techniques (labeled as such) that might be used by the enemy:

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.

Alexander’s ultimate judgment of the Thiessen book is damning:

Thiessen and the torture apologists mock every American soldier who has followed the rules of law and ethical warfare. He insults every interrogator who has learned to elicit information without resorting to medieval abuses. The America that I know and signed up to defend does not stand exclusively for security. It also stands for freedom, justice, and liberty. It stands for universal rights afforded to every human being (even unlawful combatants or “detained persons”). America, as Thiessen surely has written into many a presidential speech, is a beacon of light precisely because it represents the protection of basic human rights. Yet, in Courting Disaster, Thiessen thoroughly villainizes those who defend individual rights against the state (such as members of the Center for Constitutional Rights). Thiessen’s ideology represents exactly what we are fighting against in the battle with Islamic extremism—the regression of human rights and the sacrifice of individual protections to the state.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2017

Blood and Soil

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Grim Fairy Tale

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Little Things

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Patient War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Remainers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Post
Illustration (detail) by Steve Brodner
Article
The Patient War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Photograph (detail) © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Redux
Article
Little Things·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Photograph (detail) of miniatures by Lori DeBacker by Thomas Allen
Article
Blood and Soil·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Minutes after a tornado hit Shiloh, Illinois, in April that the town’s warning siren sounded:

30

A bowl of 4,000-year-old noodles was found in northwestern China; and a spokesman for the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that “this is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.”

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, announced that he has ordered the country’s navy and coast guard to bomb the ships of kidnappers even if civilian hostages are on board.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today