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Apr. 14 2010 - 12:24 pm | 5,524 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

Marc Thiessen Responds to Jane Mayer

In National Review, former Bush Administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen responds to the review of his book written by The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

Mr. Thiessen writes:

Mayer declares categorically that “the Bush administration’s interrogation policies . . . yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.”

Here is what Ms. Mayer actually said in her article:

Thiessen’s book, whose subtitle is “How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.

Conclusion: When Mr. Thiessen uses ellipses be sure to check up on what he elides.

Mr. Thiessen continues:

She must not have been listening when Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, declared: “High value information came from [CIA] interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.”

This neglects to mention the other statement by Admiral Blair that appeared in the same New York Times article:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

She must have forgotten that when she herself interviewed Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA director, he told her, “Important information was gathered from these detainees. [The CIA program] provided information that was acted upon.”

Here is the relevant excerpt from Ms. Mayer’s article:

Dick Cheney has repeatedly claimed that “enhanced” interrogations yield results. Opponents say that torture is counterproductive. Panetta is more agnostic. He told me, “The bottom line would be this: Yes, important information was gathered from these detainees. It provided information that in fact was acted upon. Was this the only way to obtain this information? I think that will always be an open question.” But he is certain that “we did pay a price for using those methods.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

And she must have forgotten her 2007 interview (also quoted in the Panetta article) with John Brennan (now Obama’s homeland-security advisor), in which she asked him if enhanced interrogation techniques “were necessary to keep America safe,” and he replied: “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt from Ms. Mayer’s article with a bit more context:

Brennan has described himself as an internal critic of waterboarding—a position that friends, such as Emile Nakhleh, a former senior officer, confirm. Yet, in an interview with me two years ago, Brennan defended the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and extraordinary renditions, in which the C.I.A. abducted terror suspects around the globe and transported them to other countries to be jailed and interrogated; many of those countries had execrable human-rights records. He also questioned some people’s definition of “torture.” “I think it’s torture when I have to ride in the car with my kids and they have loud rap music on,” he said. Asked if “enhanced” interrogation techniques were necessary to keep America safe, he replied, “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the C.I.A. was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

In other words, Mr. Brennan is advocating for “enhanced interrogation” but using that term in a way that excludes waterboarding as something that should not be done.

To summarize so far, Mr. Thiessen accuses Jane Mayer of asserting that Bush era interrogations yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit, even though she doesn’t assert that — rather, she very clearly reports, accurately, that some of Bush’s critics assert that position, never asserting it herself.

Subsequently, he purports to defend his own position about enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, by selectively quoting people who turn out to argue that either enhanced interrogation generally, or waterboarding in particular, shouldn’t be used and do more harm than good. That he neglects to mention their words when they are contrary to his own arguments is telling.

And we’re only three short paragraphs into Mr. Thiessen’s article.

In paragraph four, Mr. Thiessen notes that various Bush Administration officials assert that the Bush era interrogation program was valuable. This is indisputably true, and in no way disproves anything in Ms. Mayer’s review. He then writes, “In her review, Mayer asks us to accept that all of these CIA directors and directors of national intelligence from both Democratic and Republican administrations are wrong, and she is right. Readers can judge for themselves.” In fact, Ms. Meyer isn’t pitting Bush era officials against herself — she is pitting their views against numerous credible sources, including intelligence experts, who she quotes at length to rebut assertions by Bush Administration officials, and who offer a different account of interrogation practices from 2001 to 2008.

There is a lot left in Mr. Thiessen’s piece. I don’t have time to assess its remaining paragraphs right now — wading through all the source material is time consuming work — but depending on whether anyone else writes persuasively about them I may return to the subject of his latest writing.

UPDATE:

My question is this, and I’m sure it applies to many of us, and not just Thiessen — does he realize what he’s doing as he does it? Does he realize that eliding “according to many critics” and instead preceding a quote with “declares categorically” is a mis-characterization? Does he think people won’t notice? Or, in his mind, does he really think that Mayer did declare this categorically?

And if Thiessen does understand what he’s doing, isn’t there a point where if you find it necessary to argue so dishonestly for your position that you re-consider that position? Around the fourth time you strip away clarifying context from a quote, doesn’t a little voice inside your brain start to whisper about whether what you’re doing is right?

I wonder about this too.

UPDATE II: A response from Mr. Thiessen and my rebuttal are here.


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  1. collapse expand

    Is it any surprise that a defender of myopic, incompetent and dysfunctional policies, sees what he wants to see and reads what he wants to read? This isn’t about policy for them; it’s all about defending a narrow ideology. It’s their religion.

  2. collapse expand

    Conor, that is the question that I am constantly asking about many of these folks in Washington (and their apologists). Does Sen. Baucus *really believe* that the “Cornhusker Kickback” was not a quid-pro-quo? Does Thiessen really believe all the drivel and lies he spouts? Does Liz Cheney really believe the hateful things she says?

    But there’s a problem either way: if these folks *really believe* this nonsense, then they’re dangerously deluded; if they *don’t* believe it, then they’re bald-faced liars. Neither option is particularly palatable from people who either want to or are in positions of authority in our government, don’t you think?

  3. collapse expand

    KSM was in federal custody for the last six years of the Bush administration. If trial outside of a military commission is such an obvious risk to American security, and if it was evident in early 2007 that several leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President opposed military commissions, isn’t it irresponsible for Thiessen’s boss to have not convicted KSM in a tribunal when he had the chance? By Thiessen’s logic, Bush put our country in peril by failing to permanently entrench the tribunals as the de facto method of prosecuting prisoners of the Global War on Terror.

    Similarly, if torture is as useful, necessary, and obviously legal as Thiessen claims, how in the world could he continue to work for a President so irresponsible as to discontinue enhanced interrogation altogether? Why did we not torture anyone after 2005 or humanely waterboard after 2003? Waterboarding certainly would’ve proven Steven Hatfill’s guilt in the anthrax attacks, but Bush let him go free on American streets in 2003.

  4. collapse expand

    Your update inadvertently points to exactly the issue.

    This right wing hack is not going to revise his position if he realizes his argument is weak.

    He -and so many other right wing hacks like him – behave as if they have been given a debating class homework assignment, and they must make up whatever arguments might score points.

    With one difference: in their debating game, there are no penalty points for lying – for deliberately editing to change meaning, for making up facts that are not true, for totally unsupportable logical leaps.

    Those penalty points would have to come from the media – and in Fred Haitt’s debating society, the media supports the liars and the cheats.

  5. collapse expand

    Thanks for doing the work Mr. Friedersdorf. I read the review when it came out and was hoping someone would call Mr. Thiessen out. Not so much for the politics, but because I’m OCD about out of context quoting.

  6. collapse expand

    Well written and thoughtful deconstructions, Conor. This all points to some rather serious intellectual dishonesty on the part of Thiessen. Or perhaps he just has a hard time with logic? Maybe both?

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    About Me

    Conor Friedersdorf is a writer, a Californian by upbringing, and a nomad at present. Refresh his page often.

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