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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.

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