No Comment — June 10, 2010, 11:58 am

Thiessen’s Heroes

A recent post at the AEI website gives us another glimpse into the mind of Marc Thiessen, the Cheney family publicist. He notes a story running in the Washington Post concerning Jennifer Lynne Matthews, the CIA chief at the forward base that was tragically struck by a double-agent suicide bomber, leaving seven Americans dead. Then comes this rhetorical twist:

in the eyes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations, this makes Matthews not a hero, but a murderer. According to the ACLU, Matthews was engaged in a “program of long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing” and that “violates international law.” According to the UN special rapporteur, her actions “constitute extrajudicial executions.” In fact, neither is true. Matthews was not a war criminal; she was a patriot who gave her life so that the rest of us can live safe from terror. She deserves better.

I agree with the last comment. She deserves better. In fact she and her family deserve an apology from the craven Marc Thiessen, who is trying to exploit their memory for his own cheap political purposes.

I just conducted a lengthy interview with the UN rapporteur, Philip Alston, after reviewing his report. Has he ever said that Jennifer Matthews was a “war criminal”? Of course not. His criticism was not targeted at CIA agents operating under difficult conditions in the field. In fact, he had some compliments for the work they were doing—noting that the targeting in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area seemed to be improving, and agreeing that the United States had legitimate targets in this area. His argument seems far too subtle for a mind like Thiessen’s—it is that the drones, when deployed as lethal weapons in a theater of war, should be operated by the uniformed military, applying the law of armed conflict rules that they train to. He is not saying that the use of drones is per se unlawful, and he is agreeing that drones may be used in a war setting against an enemy that embraces terrorist tactics.

That’s far from saying that the CIA has no legitimate role to play. In fact, logically extended it comes to just the opposite view: the intelligence gathering function is critical. What matters is that the targets are legitimate targets and that the harm a strike presents to innocent civilians is kept to a minimum. Thiessen, as usual, reduces a nuanced critique of tactics and legal policy to infantile gibberish.

The flip side is Thiessen’s use of the concept of “war criminals.” There is a shrill aspect to these words, conjuring as they invariably do recollections of the Nuremberg Tribunals. But it’s a simple fact that grave breaches of the laws of armed conflict occur in virtually every sustained conflict. They are in a sense a universal phenomenon associated with warfare. Countries whose armed forces are committed to observing the laws of war and who have honorable traditions commit war crimes, even if not with the frequency or gravity of those countries whose armed forces hold the laws of war in contempt. The key distinction is what happens after those crimes occur. A country that’s serious about upholding its commitments conducts a proper investigation and brings charges. A country that flouts them would be more inclined to argue that it “shouldn’t look back.”

Contrary to Thiessen’s dichotomy of “patriots” versus “war criminals,” these concepts are by no means opposites, as Conor Friedersdorf notes. Some notorious war criminals have been sadistic monsters, but others have been convinced that they were doing exactly what the interests of their nation and their government required. The question is what values their patriotism upholds. For George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight Eisenhower there was a clear answer: rigorous adherence to the laws of war is part of what defines America, and the American commitment to the law of war is essential to the evolution and success of the law of war on the international stage. Marc Thiessen has a radically different understanding, of course.

Thiessen writes:

the ceremony at CIA headquarters also honored others killed at the base in Afghanistan, including Darren LaBonte, 35; Elizabeth Hanson, 31, an analyst; Harold Brown Jr., a retired Army officer from Fairfax; Scott Michael Roberson, a former narcotics officer from Atlanta; Jeremy Wise, a former Navy Seal from Virginia Beach; Dane Clark Paresi, a former Special Forces soldier from Dupont, Washington; and several others killed elsewhere on clandestine missions in recent years. These individuals—and all the men and women of the CIA—deserve our respect and gratitude for the sacrifices they make to protect us from harm. Every American should take a moment to remember those secret warriors who gave up their futures so that we could enjoy ours—and to say a prayer for the families they left behind, who will never fully know their achievements, and continue to mourn an unbearable loss.

I agree with Thiessen that those who serve selflessly and at great personal risk in the nation’s interest deserve our support and respect. But using their names and memories for cheap partisan attacks is not the way to show it.

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