Thiessen's Disaster: For Thiessen to be right, everyone else must be wrong

Thiessen's Disaster: For Thiessen to be right, everyone else must be wrong

››› ››› ADAM SHAH

In addition to resting on numerous falsehoods, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen's argument that President Obama's national security policies have made the United States less safe relies on accusations that an FBI agent, terrorism experts, public officials, the former head of the British legal system, and journalists are either lying or wrong. In addition, if Thiessen's allegations were correct, numerous other people must also be wrong, including the 9/11 Commission, members of the Bush administration, Army interrogators and participants in detainee tribunals, and Catholic theologians.

To back up his argument, Thiessen claims FBI agent, federal judges, members of Congress and others are wrong or lying

Thiessen claim: FBI agent and interrogator Ali Soufan "knows nothing about" the CIA program and makes "untrue" statements. Thiessen repeatedly claims that Ali Soufan, who participated in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and other detainees and who has strongly criticized the CIA interrogation program as counterproductive, is wrong or lying.

  • Thiessen writes: "Contrary to the claims later made by some critics (such as FBI agent Ali Soufan), the CIA did not send a bunch of inexperienced people to question high-value detainees." [p. 46]
  • Thiessen writes:

In a New York Times op-ed in April 2009, Soufan wrote:

Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence. We discovered, for example, that Khalid Sheikh Mohamed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. (emphasis added)

This, Justice Department documents indicate, is simply untrue. In October 2009, the Department released a revised version of its March 2009 Inspector General's Report on the FBI's involvement in detainee interrogations. In that report, the other FBI agent involved in Zubaydah's interrogation (referred to by the alias "Agent Gibson") said it was the CIA -- not Soufan -- that got the information on Padilla. [p. 86]

  • Thiessen writes:

Ali Soufan, the FBI agent and CIA critic, says: "When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them....That means the information you're getting is useless."

What this statement reveals is that Soufan knows nothing about how the CIA actually employed enhanced interrogation techniques. [p. 103]

  • Thiessen writes:

As Ali Soufan writes, "The plot to attack the Library Tower....was thwarted in 2002, and Mr. Mohammed was not arrested until 2003."

It is true that Masran and another operative in the plot were captured before KSM, and that this set back plans for the West Coast attack. Yet when KSM was taken into custody thirteen months after Masran, virtually all of the other key operatives in the Hambali network that was to carry out the West Coast plot were still at large. Masran did not tell us about the plot, or give these operatives up. It was only after the CIA's enhanced interrogation of KSM that the agency was able to track down these operatives and take them off the streets. To buy the argument that the threat to the Library Tower was over before KSM's capture, you would have to accept the premise that if Majid Khan...and Zubair...and Hambali...and Lillie...and Gun Gun...and the fourteen members of the Ghuraba cell were all left at large and unmolested, they would not have eventually carried out the West Coast plot.

This flies in the face of logic. [pp. 105-106]

  • Thiessen writes: "I asked Peckham about criticism of the program from those, like FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who say that coercive interrogations were ineffective and unnecessary. Peckham replied: 'Well, I don't think he really knows about the program, is the first thing I'd say. The second thing I'd say is I really just was not convinced that normal criminal justice FBI techniques were going to be effective in the cases we were dealing with.' " [pp. 114-15]

Thiessen claim: Sen. John McCain makes a "false analogy" when he compares treatment of detainees to North Vietnamese POWs. Thiessen writes: "Another false analogy compares the CIA's treatment of al Qaeda terrorists to the treatment our POWs received at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Unfortunately, one of those making this specious argument is Senator John McCain." [p. 158] Thiessen then quotes several former POWs held by North Vietnam and writes on page 162: "These men know more about torture than all of the CIA's critics combined -- and they say unequivocally that what the CIA did was not torture."

Thiessen claim: Federal civilian judge and former JAG Evan Wallach falsely compares CIA techniques to ones used by Japanese in World War II. Thiessen writes:

Perhaps the most dishonest comparison with the techniques of Imperial Japan comes from Evan Wallach, a judge on the United States Court of International Trade, who served in the United States Army Judge Advocate General's Corps during the Persian Gulf War. In a Washington Post op-ed, Wallach wrote: "The United States knows quite a bit about waterboarding. The U.S. government...has not only condemned the use of water torture but has severely punished those who applied it. After World War II, we convicted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners of war." He goes on to provide carefully selected snippets of testimony that make the waterboarding by the Japanese appear analogous to what the CIA did to al Qaeda terrorists. It is not. [p. 142]

Thiessen claim: The former head of the U.K.'s legal system Lord Chancellor Falconer, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch issue "calumnies, plain and simple." Thiessen writes:

Thanks to these critics, the name "Guantanamo" has become virtually synonymous with torture and abuse. Amnesty International has declared Guantanamo "the gulag of our time." Human Rights Watch has called it "the Bermuda Triangle of human rights." And Britain's Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer (the man who heads the UK's legal system, including the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison), has condemned the existence of Guantanamo as a "shocking affront to democracy."

These are calumnies, plain and simple. Guantanamo Bay is not a "gulag"; it is a model detention center -- a place where terrorists are treated with the humanity that they would deny their victims in an instant if given the chance. [pp. 278-79]

Thiessen claim: Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan's "understanding of the Catholic teaching is wrong." Thiessen writes

In an open letter to President Bush, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Sullivan (a self-described "wayward Catholic") declares, "Our faith tells us that what you authorized is an absolute evil. By absolute evil, I mean something that is never morally justified" (emphasis in original). Sullivan goes on, "Torture has no defense whatsoever in Christian morality. There are no circumstances in which it can be justified, let alone integrated as a formal program within a democratic government. The Catholic catechism states, 'Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.' "

Sullivan's understanding of the Catholic teaching is wrong. [p. 187]

Thiessen claim: Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens tried to prove waterboarding is torture, but actually proved that it isn't. Thiessen quotes Hitchens' reaction to voluntarily undergoing waterboarding. Thiessen then writes:

[Hitchens] then adds: "I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.' Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture." (Remember that term: "moral casuistry.")

In undergoing this experiment, Hitchens intended to prove that waterboarding is torture. Instead, he proved it is not. There is a legal definition of torture, which we will explore in a moment. But there is also a common sense definition: If you are willing to try it to see what it feels like, it is not torture.

If Hitchens's tormentors had offered to attach electrodes to his body, and then turn on the switch, would he have tried it to see what it feels like? I seriously doubt it. [p. 128]

Thiessen claim: CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour is "dishonest and shameful." After describing Christiane Amanpour's reaction to torture conducted by the Khmer Rouge and comparison of tactics to ones used by U.S. interrogators, Thiessen writes:

For Amanpour to compare this to the interrogations employed by the CIA is either willful ignorance or something far worse. Surely she knows that the CIA never submerged any al Qaeda prisoner into a "life-size box full of water, handcuffed to the side so he cannot escape or raise his head to breathe." Surely she knows that the CIA did not remove the fingernails of prisoners or kill children before their parents' eyes, or mutilate their genitals, or carry them on bamboo rods, as was done at S-21. Surely she knows that more than 14,000 people were not killed at CIA interrogation sites, as they had been at S-21. For her to compare the CIA's lawful interrogation of al Qaeda terrorists to the Cambodian genocide that killed 2 million people is dishonest and shameful. [pp. 140-41]

Thiessen claim: Sen. Whitehouse, Eric Holder, The Washington Post, and Agence France Press make "false comparisons" and "vile accusation[s]." After attacking Amanpour, Thiessen writes:

Sadly, Amanpour is not alone in making this vile accusation. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has declared on the Senate floor that our intelligence community "descended into interrogation techniques...of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge." At his confirmation hearings, Obama Attorney General Eric Holder declared: "If you look at the history of the use of that technique used by the Khmer Rouge...I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture." The Washington Post has reported that "The practice as used by the CIA bears similarities to the methods of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia." Agence France Press has written that "Waterboarding [was] a staple of brutal interrogations...[of] Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime." And it goes on and on.

These false comparisons shoot across the world on the Internet and 24 hour cable news, and are taken as fact by millions. [p. 141]

Thiessen claim: Sen. Kennedy's accusation about waterboarding is "wrong." Thiessen writes:

For example, in 2006 Senator Ted Kennedy cited the case of Yukio Asano, a Japanese officer convicted of war crimes, as proof that we prosecuted Japanese war criminals for the same practices as the CIA. Kennedy declared, "Asano was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. We punished people with 15 years of hard labor when waterboarding was used against Americans in World War II."

Kennedy's comparison, which has been widely echoed by the critics, is wrong. First, Asano was convicted of abusing American POWs who were lawful combatants and should have enjoyed the full protections of the Geneva Conventions. Second, the form of the water torture Asano used was not comparable to CIA waterboarding. And third, Asano was convicted of far more than simply water torture. [p. 149]

Thiessen claim: Sen. Dodd issued "scurrilous" attack on waterboarding. Thiessen writes:

[I]n 2008, Senator Christopher Dodd declared in a speech on the Senate floor, "Waterboarding [is] a technique invented by the Spanish Inquisition, perfected by the Khmer Rouge, and in between, banned -- originally banned for excessive cruelty -- by the Gestapo!"

Consider that for a moment: Senator Dodd actually believes that the techniques applied by his own country were considered excessively cruel by the Gestapo. I asked his office whether he stood by this statement. They refused repeated requests for an answer.


We have yet to hear any apology from Andrew Sullivan or Christopher Dodd. To the contrary, on his official Senate website, Dodd has a video of himself delivering the scurrilous speech, as though he is proud of it. [pp. 157-58]

Thiessen claim: Durbin draws "vile comparison" regarding waterboarding. Thiessen writes:

Dodd is not alone in drawing this vile comparison. In 2005, Senator Dick Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, stood on the Senate floor and compared the techniques used by our military at Guantanamo Bay to those "done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings." A few days later, after controversy erupted over this remark, Durbin slunk back to the floor and delivered a partial apology: "I am sorry if anything I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time. Nothing, nothing should ever be said to demean or diminish that moral tragedy." [p. 157]

Thiessen claim: Pelosi "looked the press in the and lied." Thiessen responded to Pelosi's statement regarding waterboarding that "[n]o letter or anything else is going to stop them from doing what they're going to do":

Pelosi knew when she made this excuse that she had the power to change CIA policy when it comes to covert operations, because she herself had done it. In an interview for this book in 2009, a former high-ranking intelligence official told me that, in the same period that Pelosi admits she learned about waterboarding, she personally intervened with the White House to stop a different covert action program -- and succeeded. "Speaker Pelosi herself has stopped covert action programs that she has been briefed on, by going to the White House [to object]," this official told me. "In that very same time frame, Pelosi had gone back to the White House in a separate covert action program, expressed strong opposition to it. And the remarkable part to me, the White House backed off on the program, changed one aspect of the program -- it's still classified so I can't get into it, but it had nothing to do with terrorism. One aspect of it, she was particularly opposed to. And literally, the finding was pulled back and revised."

He pointed me to a brief, little-noticed item in the September 27, 2004 edition of Time magazine. This item noted that Pelosi had objected to "a secret 'finding' written several months ago proposing a covert CIA operation to aid candidates favored by Washington" in the Iraqi elections that year. Iran was funneling millions of dollars to back pro-Iranian parties, and according to Time,

A source says the idea was to help such candidates -- whose opponents might be receiving covert backing from other countries, like Iran....House minority leader Nancy Pelosi "came unglued" when she learned about what a source described as a plan for "the CIA to put an operation in place to affect the outcome of the elections." Pelosi had strong words with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a phone call about the issue....A senior U.S. official hinted that, under pressure from the Hill, the Administration scaled back its original plans.

In other words, in the very same period that Speaker Pelosi admits that she learned about waterboarding -- and did nothing -- she personally intervened with the White House to stop a different covert action program -- and succeeded. This gives lie to Pelosi's claim that she thought she was powerless to stop CIA waterboarding. At the time, she told a packed Capitol Hill press conference that "no letter or anything else is going to stop them from doing what they're going to do," she knew full well that she had personally stopped them from "doing what they're going to do" in a separate covert operation. She looked the press in the eye and lied. [pp. 221-223]

Thiessen claim: Jane Mayer's reporting that the State Department had drafted a Bush to give a speech closing the CIA detention program is "wrong." Thiessen writes in Courting Disaster:

Mayer writes:

It turns out the speech went through many drafts. An earlier version had included a clarion-like call to close down the CIA's secret prison program for good. This had survived edits and rewrites until Vice President Cheney held a short, private meeting with President Bush. Afterward, the President made no more promises to end America's experiment with secret detention.

As the author of that speech I can tell you: The address went through sixteen drafts, all of them marked "Top Secret/SCI" -- the highest level of classification in the federal government. Not one of those sixteen drafts included "a clarion-like call to close down the CIA's secret prison program for good." Such a call had not "survived edits and rewrites" -- it was never in there in the first place.

I asked Mayer where she got this account. She told me that she was referring to a "rival draft" of the speech, prepared by the State Department (the purported Bellinger/Waxman draft). I told her there was no rival draft. She replied in an email:

It would be misleading to suggest that there was no rival version of the speech on the CIA's detention program, which President Bush delivered in September 2006 -- there was absolutely another version -- it was drafted by top State Department officials and it had the Secretary of State's support. It was circulated in the White House. Those familiar with it say it was killed in Vice President Cheney's Office.

Mayer added,

There was a strong dispute over what that speech should say, administration foreign policy officials, including the Secretary of State, backed a fully-finished draft that called for the secret detention system to be closed. The language submitted by the State Department did not appear in the final speech. If you never saw the draft from State, then someone killed it before sharing it with you. I have, as I indicated earlier, read it myself.

I asked Steve Hadley -- who would have seen any draft "circulated in the White House" -- if he knew of a rival draft of the speech. He did not. Neither did J.D. Crouch, who ran the entire interagency process in preparation for the speech. Neither did CIA Director Mike Hayden. Neither did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who Mayer claims "backed a fully-finished draft of the speech").

And most interesting of all, neither did John Bellinger, the purported author of the rival draft.

To be sure, Bellinger had a very different vision for the speech than the one the president delivered, and I can attest that he submitted many edits designed to change the emphasis of the speech (mostly moving language about our commitment to the rule of law to the front before the vigorous defense of the program). But Bellinger told me definitively that he did not write a speech draft from scratch.

I asked to speak to Mayer's source or see a copy of the "rival" speech, but Mayer apparently did not feel at liberty to share either. The bottom line: there was never a rival draft -- supported by the Secretary of State, circulated within the White House, killed by Vice President Cheney -- that contained a "clarion call" to shut down the CIA interrogation program once and for all. Mayer got the story, delivered in her book with such assured confidence, wrong. [pp.64-66]

In Wash. Post piece, Thiessen defends attack on DOJ lawyers by claiming everyone else is wrong

In Courting Disaster, Thiessen attacks DOJ lawyers who represented detainees, and ones that worked at law firms in which other lawyers represented detainees. From Courting Disaster:

Some argue that, with the exception of [Neal] Katyal, none of these lawyers directly represented terrorists, so they should not be held responsible for the actions of other lawyers in their firms. That might be true for a junior partner. But the fact is, [Department of Justice officials Eric] Holder, [Lanny] Breuer, [David] Ogden, [Thomas] Perelli [sic], and [Tony] West were all senior partners at their firms at the time when these firms were deciding whether or not to accept terrorist clients. They had the power to say no and stop this work on behalf of America's terrorist enemies. They chose not to do so.

I spoke to several partners at major law firms that have chosen not to represent terrorists. None wanted to criticize their competitors on the record, but all agreed that the work would not have gone forward without the approval of Holder and his colleagues. One attorney explained that law firms pride themselves on collegiality, and if one or more partners expressed opposition, that is sufficient to kill a pro bono project. He said the reason his firm does not represent terrorists is because partners like him spoke up and made clear they opposed the firm doing such work. If such opposition could stop this work at his firm, this lawyer says, Holder could have done the same at Covington. "Eric Holder's law firm did this with the full blessing and support of Eric Holder," he says. "He's responsible for it." [pp. 257-58]

In Courting Disaster, Thiessen claims DOJ lawyers who took on detainee cases "are aiding and abetting America's enemies." From Courting Disaster:

The attorneys fighting these cases -- some intentionally, others unwittingly -- are practicing what has come to be called "lawfare." They are aiding and abetting America's enemies by filing lawsuits on their behalf, and turning U.S. courtrooms into a new battlefield in the war on terror. These lawsuits tie our government in knots and make it more difficult for our military and intelligence officials to defend our country from terrorist dangers. And they undermine America's moral authority by echoing the enemy's propaganda that America systematically abuses human rights. [p. 274]

After attacks on DOJ lawyers come under withering criticism from left and right, Thiessen claims all his critics are wrong in Wash. Post piece. In a March 11 piece for The Washington Post, Thiessen lashed out at the critics, writing: "Defenders of the habeas lawyers representing al-Qaeda terrorists have invoked the iconic name of John Adams to justify their actions, claiming these lawyers are only doing the same thing Adams did when he defended British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. The analogy is clever, but wholly inaccurate." At the time Thiessen wrote his Washington Post piece, many people had seen similarities between Adams and the attorneys who represented detainees, including former independent counsel Ken Starr; Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson; Larry Thompson, the former number two official at the Bush Justice Department; Peter Keisler, who served as acting attorney general under President Bush; senior Bush defense department officials Matthew Waxman, Charles "Cully" Stimson, and Daniel Dell'Orto; Bush associate White House counsel Bradley Berenson; former top advisers to Condoleezza Rice Philip Zelikow and John Bellinger III; columnist Dahlia Lithwick; Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman; Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for the military commissions; Orrin Kerr, who served as special counsel to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) during the confirmation hearings for Justice Sonia Sotomayor; and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. Former Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey has also criticized the attack. Previously, Bush administration Solicitor General Ted Olson also defended lawyers who represented detainees from attacks.

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