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Apr. 15 2010 - 1:19 am | 3,298 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

Marc Thiessen vs. Jane Mayer, Cont’d

Over at The Corner, Marc Thiessen continues his attack on Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who panned his book, Courting Disaster, in a scathing review that pointed out its numerous inaccurate passages. Mr. Thiessen responded to that review here. I argued that his response is unfair to Ms. Mayer.

Before I address the errors in his latest post, I want to step back for a minute and explain to Mr. Thiessen something about the larger controversy. The core of his argument, in his book Courting Disaster, and in the present exchange, is that the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation tactics,” — a euphemism that encompasses techniques I and many others find to be illegal torture — were indispensable to national security. As Mr. Thiessen puts it in his latest post:

I would certainly welcome it if Mayer, Friedersdorf, and all the other critics would finally come out and admit publicly that enhanced interrogations did work — that lives were saved thanks to the information the CIA program produced.

Despite his assertions, Mr. Thiessen hasn’t proved this to be so, and I want to explain why. Implicit in his work is the assumption that the CIA interrogation program “worked” so long as it can be shown that a detainee subjected to these techniques provided intelligence that saved American lives. This is a flawed metric.

One problem is that in any individual case, it is impossible to determine whether an approach other than “enhanced interrogation” could have elicited the same intelligence, or even better intelligence, something that Mr. Thiessen himself admits.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, a case where a detainee who was water-boarded gave up information that he would’ve otherwise withheld. In this circumstance, Mr. Thiessen would claim vindication, point to the American lives saved by the information, and assert it as proof that the CIA’s entire “enhanced interrogation” program “works.”

What is myopic about that assumption, and the whole body of Mr. Thiessen’s writerly output, is that overall efficacy, overall impact on American lives, and overall impact in the War on Terrorism is the actual metric that determines whether or not an interrogation program “works.”

Were I to implement an interrogation program where the CIA questioners spoke only Chinese, it might well save American lives in a single instance, when the particular detainee hails from Beijing, whereas the failure to elicit information from every other detainee would mean that, on the whole, the strategy didn’t work. Similarly, it may be the case that in a single instance, “enhanced interrogation techniques” elicited useful information, even information that saved American lives, but that other consequences of the program make clear that it was an overall failure.

What kinds of “other consequences”? They’ve been discussed endlessly in the debate over detainee treatment, but to quickly rehash the relevant arguments, some of which I find persuasive, and all of which I find plausible: A) Seeing as how the detainees are basically being tortured, “enhanced interrogation” produces false leads from people who just want the pain to stop — and having to track down these false leads is an inefficient waste of resources that distracts anti-terrorism forces, perhaps costing American lives. B) Alternative interrogation tactics that don’t involve torture are simply more effective, either because interrogators have a lot more experience implementing them, or because of the way that the average human being reacts to different methods. Numerous experienced interrogation experts have made this claim. C) The FBI and some talented interrogators are uncomfortable with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As a result, using them entails the employment of marginally less talented interrogators in the short term, and in the long term affects the number of people who are even willing to train as interrogators. D) The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” makes some countries less likely or entirely unwilling to give us custody of suspects in the War on Terrorism. E) The fact that we use horrific techniques like waterboarding serves as a recruiting tool for organizations like Al Qaeda, and undermines moral authority that is crucial to winning our wars abroad — General Petraeus makes this latter argument. F) A reputation for the use of “enhanced interrogation” makes the enemy less likely to surrender, and makes anti-terrorist Muslims less likely than they’d otherwise be to report intelligence about other people to American forces, especially when they are unsure of someone’s guilt.

Given all these factors, it is wrongheaded, simplistic and indefensible to prattle on about the CIA interrogation program having been proven to work based solely on the argument that some useful information has been gleaned. I am sure there are also other arguments about the strategic benefit of torture, as opposed to its tactical efficacy in a given situation. Suffice it to say that Mr. Thiessen doesn’t have a persuasive rebuttal to these arguments.

Incidentally, in his post at The Corner, Mr. Thiessen continues to conflate a tactical success in a single enhanced interrogations with the CIA program “working.” He writes:

Friedersdorf goes on to charge that I incorrectly claim Admiral Blair, Leon Panetta, and John Brennan all supported the CIA program. This is not what I said. Their opposition is well documented in my book, and should be obvious to any sentient reader (if they supported the CIA program they would not have shut it down). What I do is quote them admitting that the program worked.

In fact, I never charge that Mr. Thiessen makes incorrect claims about these men supporting the CIA program — it’s far sneakier than that. What I wrote is that “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.” I encourage readers to go here and judge for yourselves if you feel misled by the way that Mr. Thiessen quotes his sources. Perhaps he didn’t intend to be misleading, and it is his curious definition of the word “work” that is actually getting in the way here. This is most evident in the case of General Blair, so let’s look at his whole quote again:

“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 persists in summarizing the views of a man who says these techniques do overall damage to our interests — that their costs “far outweigh their benefits” — by saying that he believes these techniques “work” (and when he quotes the man he leaves out the second sentence entirely!).

That is my well founded objection.

So Mr. Thiessen persists in acting as though whether “enhanced interrogation” works is a matter of proving that in some individual instances information was elicited that saved American lives. Before we granted that possibility for the sake of argument. Now let’s grapple with that narrow matter.

Even proving that American lives would’ve been lost but for these techniques — a difficult thing to demonstrate — wouldn’t salvage Mr. Thiessen’s project, given other objections just listed. But it is relevant to the dispute with Ms. Mayer that I’ve weighed in on.

Mr. Thiessen writes:

Over at True/Slant, Conor Friedersdorf comes to Jane Mayer’s defense, claiming Mayer didn’t really mean that the CIA interrogations “yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit” because — aha! — I left out that she attributed this claim to “many critics.” Please. Asserting that “many critics” say CIA interrogations yielded no intelligence is like saying “many critics say you beat your wife.” It’s disingenuous to cite these many (unnamed) critics and say — oh, but of course, Mayer did not mean she agreed with them. Of course she did. The whole purpose of her review was to rebut the arguments I present in Courting Disaster that the CIA program produced invaluable intelligence.

Even in focusing on a line at the beginning of Ms. Mayer’s piece that was meant to summarize the state of debate, Mr. Thiessen is in the wrong, especially in asserting that these critics are “unnamed.” Ms. Mayer’s review begins by summarizing the Courting Disaster assertion that if not for the CIA interrogation program, a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights would’ve succeeded. She writes:

His account of the foiled Heathrow plot, for example, is “completely and utterly wrong,” according to Peter Clarke, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch in 2006. “The deduction that what was being planned was an attack against airliners was entirely based upon intelligence gathered in the U.K.,” Clarke said, adding that Thiessen’s “version of events is simply not recognized by those who were intimately involved in the airlines investigation in 2006.” Nor did Scotland Yard need to be told about the perils of terrorists using liquid explosives. The bombers who attacked London’s public-transportation system in 2005, Clarke pointed out, “used exactly the same materials.”

Is Peter Clarke not a named critic who asserts that CIA interrogations yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit?

Another named critic in the piece:

Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert who is writing a history of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror,” told me that the Heathrow plot “was disrupted by a combination of British intelligence, Pakistani intelligence, and Scotland Yard.” He noted that authorities in London had “literally wired the suspects’ bomb factory for sound and video.” It was “a classic law-enforcement and intelligence success,” Bergen said, and “had nothing to do with waterboarding or with Guantánamo detainees.”

Later in Ms. Mayer’s piece:

Thiessen’s impulse, however, is to credit C.I.A. interrogators at every turn. He portrays the agency’s coercive handling, in 2002, of Abu Zubaydah—he was subjected to beatings, sexual humiliation, temperature extremes, and waterboarding, among other techniques—as another coup that saved American lives. Information given by Zubaydah, Thiessen writes, led to the arrest, two months later, in Chicago, of Jose Padilla, the American-born Al Qaeda recruit. But Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent, has testified before Congress that he elicited Padilla’s identity from Zubaydah in April, 2002—months before the C.I.A. began using its most controversial methods. Soufan, speaking to Newsweek, said of Zubaydah’s treatment, “We didn’t have to do any of this.”

Is Ali Soufan not a named critic?

And still later, Ms. Mayer writes:

Thiessen, citing the classified evidence that he was privileged to see, claims that opponents of brutal interrogations can’t appreciate their efficacy. “The assessment of virtually everyone who examined the classified evidence,” he writes, is that the C.I.A.’s methods were justified. In fact, many independent experts who have top security clearances, and who have had access to the C.I.A.’s records, have denounced the agency’s tactics. Among the critics are Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., and four chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Last year, President Obama asked Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, to give a classified briefing on the program to three intelligence experts: Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska; Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel to the C.I.A.; and David Boren, the retired Democratic senator from Oklahoma. The three men were left unswayed. Boren has said that, after the briefing, he “wanted to take a bath.” In an e-mail to me, he wrote, “I left the briefing by General Hayden completely unconvinced that the use of torture is an effective means of interrogation. . . . Those who are being tortured will say anything.”

Is David Boren not a named critic?

I excerpt at such length because it is the only way to show how careless and misleading is Mr. Thiessen’s assertion.

“It’s disingenuous to cite these many (unnamed) critics and say — oh, but of course, Mayer did not mean she agreed with them,” he writes. “Of course she did.”

Unnamed critics!

As for the question of whether or not Ms. Mayer agrees with them, I think it is fair to say that overall she does not think there is compelling evidence that the CIA’s interrogation program “works,” but that neither does she “declare categorically” that they ““yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit” because a reporter as careful as she is, fact-checked by the New Yorker staff, doesn’t make unnecessarily strong categorical declarations — rather, she reports on strong critiques, and at the beginning of an article in which they’re presented she writes that the book “offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.”

It is the inclusion of these numerous named critics, saying just that in relation to various examples, that make her summary early in the article a fair one– and it is telling that Mr. Thiessen obsesses on that line, what he inaccurately calls Ms. Mayer’s assertion, when the critiques most devastating to his book are elsewhere. Put another way, the journalistic hedgded assertions of Jane Mayer are nevertheless plenty powerful enough to devastate Courting Disaster.


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  1. collapse expand

    Conor – this is excellent, of course. Critical analysis beats naked propaganda every time. Part of me wants to ask when you’re going to analyse Achmadinejad’s claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran, but the bigger part recognizes that if decent people don’t push back against this stuff, then the indecent get too much power.

    I know your post isn’t intended to be a comprehensive brief against torture, but I nevertheless want to add some gloss to this: “C) The FBI and some talented interrogators are uncomfortable with ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ As a result, using them entails the employment of marginally less talented interrogators in the short term, and in the long term affects the number of people who are even willing to train as interrogators.” I want to add that it is fairly well documented that torture or “enhanced interrogation” dehumanizes the torturer. This is one reason the Army forbids torture (and, as far as I know, has prohibited it and prosecuted it throughout US history). It’s not hard to imagine why – the point is to make the prisoners suffer and it’s hard to inflict suffering on anyone, even despicable people, without feeling either normal human sympathy, or worse, beginning to enjoy it. In a way, it’s like euthanizing animals at an animal shelter. This is an incredibly difficult job, even though it frequently involves alleviating immediate suffering. Making humans suffer must be much more destabilizing. (And an employee at an animal shelter who actually enjoys or learns to enjoy euthanasia should be marked as a psychopath and forced onto the same kind of public registry they use for sex offenders.)

    One other point frequently made elsewhere is that if we assume that some level of torture works, why do we draw the line at waterboarding? Why not slice off a finger or two? (Personally, I’d rather have a finger sliced off than be waterboarded, or even suffer sleep-deprivation or isolation to the point where it creates psychosis). Torture apologists can’t answer this question because it places objective limits on how much suffering we can inflict, and torture cannot co-exist with objective limits to its use. This is primarily because objective limits must be there for a reason, and the reason for restrictions against torture is basic human dignity. If you accept human dignity as a valid concern, then you call into question all techniques that result in physical or mental suffering. And if you add the Golden Rule to mix – how would Americans react if the Chinese grounded one of our spy planes and waterboarded the pilot 150 times? – it is impossible to make a moral case for torture. You can say we’re allowed to do it because we can, and who knows, it might just work – the Thiessen-Cheney position, or you can say that we have to treat prisoners as we would want our own prisoners treated, in which case, torture is unacceptable.

  2. collapse expand

    If you follow Thiessen’s logic, then any outrage would be acceptable if it produced results. Abortion numbers would drop if all reproductive aged women were rounded up and incarcerated. Diabetes numbers would get better if we stopped allowing the poor to buy bread and soda. C’mon! Get with the program!

  3. collapse expand

    Conor-If you are interested in continuing to follow this issue, if you have not, I highly recommend obtaining a copy of Major Douglas A. Pryer’s book, The Fight For The High Ground. CGSC Foundation Press.

    Pryer was an interrogator in Iraq. He investigated the roots, spread and success of enhanced interrogation in Iraq from 2003-2004. He documents some of the deaths involved. He uses official Army declassified documents and interviews. He repeatedly documents that they just were not getting any useful intel from enhanced interrogation techniques. It is also uplifting to realize that most in the military resisted using enhanced interrogation as they realized its lack of efficacy, its negative effects on the overall effort and the loss of moral high ground that is needed in asymmetrical conflicts. Incredibly well footnoted book. 121 pages of writing with about 60 pages of footnotes and references.

    Steve

  4. collapse expand

    I honestly believe that Thiessen is effective at what he does because he actually doesn’t know how to think. He only knows how to get from point A to point B in a straight line (and he starts with B). Watching him on TV I get the feeling he is completely earnest, he’s just a major, first-class buffon.

    • collapse expand

      Without attempting to get to motives, or anything else not on display, I think what we can say about the man is that he is an accomplished communicator with a great deal of experience advancing arguments.

      Additionally, as we see here (and elsewhere), he has a history of, shall we say, being less than scrupulous about accurately reflecting his opponents’ arguments, and caring more about the effect of his words for a given audience than on seeking truth.

      If we take it as given that both of those are true, I don’t have to ask myself if he is earnest or not. I would ask for very careful and full footnotes to his assertion that the sun is shining today before I would accept it, however, and that is with my windows.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    I’m gonna have to fan this writer. excellent stuff. thought a waste of research and time to argue with Marc Thiessen. His readers will never come here to read what you have to say. they don’t have the intellect to.

    Like Ezra Klein said about Dick Armey… Marc Thiessen is a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person is supposed to sound like.

    • collapse expand

      Fausto – When accusing others of lacking intellect, you should double-check the spelling, capitalization, and fragmentation of your own sentences. By the way, which conservative blogs do you visit on a regular basis?

      The most convincing argument for me is reading the firsthand accounts of Navy pilots that underwent the Navy SERE training, where they underwent several waterboarding episodes to train them how to deal with the realities of being captured by the enemy.

      http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=23220

      Read the article as well as the comments. The US has waterboarded tens of thousands of its own troops – legally and under the watch of Congress for decades.

      Note the things they DON’T do as part of the SERE training: cut people’s heads off slowly with dull knives, electrocute people through their testicles, rip people’s fingernails off, or dislocate or break people’s bones – they aren’t even allowed to hit with a closed fist.

      Yes, I’ve read all the arguments as to why the SERE training is *nothing like* the real thing and should be immediately dismissed as an argument. I just don’t buy them. The response to waterboarding is involuntary, and captured terrorists knew what it was before they got here (it’s not like we invented it).

      Here’s a good HuffPost article in support of torture:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/in-defense-of-torture_b_8993.html

      And here’s a right-winger against it:

      http://rightwingnuthouse.com/archives/2009/04/25/waterboarding-the-sere-strawman/

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    the CIA interrogation program “worked” so long as it can be shown that a detainee subjected to these techniques provided intelligence that saved American lives. This is a flawed metric.

    Patrick Rotman’s documentary “États d’armes” has unique footage and interviews with the French architects of torture and extrajudicial killings during the Algerian War. All but Paul Aussaresses acknowledge that torture sometimes provided a tactical advantage, but was a moral disaster that undermined their position and contributed to the French loss of the war. Thiessen, like Aussaresses, simply ignores these moral and strategic realities.

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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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