Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has a new mission: to convince the American electorate that we are less safe and secure today because Barack Obama won’t use the torture techniques, like waterboarding, that were embraced by his mentor, Dick Cheney. The radicality of Thiessen’s thesis is revealed by noting that under Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (two Republican heavyweights), Americans were prosecuted for using the techniques he advocates. In a near food fight that erupted during an interview with Philippe Sands and Christine Amanpour on CNN, Thiessen’s romp starts with his misdescription of the Khmer Rouge’s use of waterboarding. He said it involves dunking heads in the water (a practice expressly approved by Cheney), but in fact it involved cloth over the face, doused with water—as shown in this photo of an exhibition from the Museum of the Atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh—just like the CIA’s approach. He then shows he knows nothing about the Geneva Conventions by claiming that they do not apply to prisoners of war. Protection of POWs is in fact the major concern of the Third Geneva Convention, just as the Fourth Geneva Convention is focused on the protection of civilians during an occupation. All the Geneva Conventions contain a humanitarian baseline of protections available to everyone, including persons that the president labels as “unlawful enemy combatants.”
But perhaps the most interesting clip comes here, when Sands points out that Thiessen said he would submit to waterboarding and then backed down when he discovered what the process entailed. Thiessen goes berserk after this statement, which he implicitly acknowledges as correct:
SANDS: I’m a passionate believer — I’m a passionate believer in
freedom of speech, and I don’t believe people who write books are, in that
way, in any way, complicit. But those who engage in the activity of
waterboarding are engaging in torture. Susan Crawford, President Bush’s own convening authority at Guantanamo, has confirmed that Mohammed al-Kahtani, who wasn’t even waterboarded, was tortured. But let me take it a step further. I mean, I understand that Marc doesn’t think waterboarding is torture. Why doesn’t he submit himself to that technique?
THIESSEN: Because it’s terribly unpleasant, and I’m not a terrorist.
SANDS: I understand that he — I understand — I understand that he
was intending to submit himself to that technique, but, in the end, bottled
out of it…
THIESSEN: Oh, please, Philippe.
SANDS: … because he didn’t have confidence — he didn’t have
confidence that those who would impose it on him would necessary pull the
plug at the right moment.
THIESSEN: Oh, very nice. Very nice.
SANDS: It’s just an appalling technique.
Why does this exchange matter? In interviewing a number of guards at Guantánamo recently, one story I heard repeatedly impressed me with the professionalism and seriousness of the GTMO command. When it was proposed that the guard units be issued a virulent pepper spray, Major (then-Brigadier) General Jay W. Hood, commander of the Joint Task Force, insisted that no guard be authorized to use it without first having it tested on the guard. I examined a number of photographs of this testing process. It was an awful experience, one of the guards told me, but he said he really respected General Hood for it–Hood wanted the guards to understand exactly what they were doing to the prisoners when they used it. This is the spirit of traditional American detentions policy, which doesn’t flinch from the use of force when that is necessary, but always keeps in mind that the same tactics may be applied to American service personnel in the future. This is the military’s “Golden Rule.” It’s driven by a desire to rigorously uphold values America has espoused since the Revolutionary War, and by concern for the welfare of our own men and women in uniform. Thiessen evidently has contempt for both.
Watch the whole exchange here.