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:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated cost of the environmental damage caused each year by the world’s 3,000 largest companies:

$2,200,000,000,000

Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.

Beekeepers began extracting 1 million honeybees living beneath the siding of a house in New York State.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today