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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

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

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

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.

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today