Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Contest Resumes

Apparently, feeling that he was falling behind his peers, Marc Thiessen has decided to pull out all the stops. Speaking of the torture of suspected terrorists, Thiessen relies upon a memo written in 2005, which contends by torturing Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the CIA gained information that may have prevented a terrorist attack against the Library Tower in Los Angeles. Mind you, he confessed to 31 plots, past and future, including a scheme to assassinate Jimmy Carter.

Strangely, although KSM's confession was to a plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles, the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Plaza Bank building in Seattle and the Empire State Building in New York, Thiessen mentions only the Library Tower... doesn't he think the other confessions were credible? Thiessen neglects to mention that these attacks were supposedly to occur in 2002, and KSM was not captured until 2003. So perhaps KSM wasn't the best or most important source of intelligence on that.... But it makes for great hyperbole ("without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York"), so... whatever. One of the glories of arguing in the manner of Thiessen is that you can present whatever horrible you want, contend that torture prevented it, and declare victory in the argument. Who cares about the details, right?

It shouldn't need to be said, but Thiessen's argument is circular: torture works because it worked. Is it better at eliciting information than other forms of interrogation? Is it the best way to get accurate information? Is it moral and is it consistent with our nation's values? Sorry, Thiessen doesn't think those are important issues, so you'll need to get your answers somewhere else.

In terms of morality, history informs us of many ways to pacify restless populations and elicit information that we now deem vastly out of line with civilized society. Does Thiessen give so much as a breath to saying why we shouldn't simply open the floodgates - at what point do moral issues become so pressing that we simply won't go there, even if we know we could benefit? The question should have occurred to him but, of course, he gives no answer.

Is this claim supposed to be reassuring, or disturbing:
The Office of Legal Counsel memo states "we discuss only a small fraction of the important intelligence CIA interrogators have obtained from KSM" and notes that "intelligence derived from CIA detainees has resulted in more than 6,000 intelligence reports and, in 2004, accounted for approximately half of the [Counterterrorism Center's] reporting on al Qaeda."
So throughout 2004, the world of U.S. intelligence operations turned on KSM's torture-based confessions. And the best Thiessen claims for it is that it may have helped foil a plot that was supposed to have been put into effect a year before KSM's arrest? Thiessen's quick to blame Obama for this - he's supposedly sitting on mounds of evidence we could not have collected but for the torture of KSM. Yet Thiessen's former boss, G.W. Bush, proudly bragged about the fruits of the "enhanced interrogation" of KSM back in 2006. When did Bush or Cheney ever back away from declassifying information they believed would help their political agenda? Certainly not when giving that speech. No, don't think - you should instead accept the speculation of a former speechwriter and shut up.

Thiessen is, of course, continuing his line of personal attacks on Obama - that Obama's backing away from torture is putting us all in danger. That Obama's actions are among the "most dangerous and irresponsible acts ever by an American president during a time of war" and "Americans may die as a result". That Obama's deliberately withholding evidence that would show us all how great and useful torture is. Left unanswered: why would Obama do such a thing? If I were to speculate, even Thiessen was able to see how directly addressing that question would reveal him as an unprincipled hack.

Thiessen also suggests that Obama's releasing the secrets of our torture will prevent us from being able to effectively torture people in the future. Apparently because everybody who isn't in U.S. custody is oblivious to the fact that KSM, Abu Zubaydah and friends remain alive and their families unharmed by U.S. forces. Is Thiessen seriously contending that unless captured terrorist suspects thinks we're going to kill them or torture their children, torture won't work? Because I suspect that by now, most of them have figured out that we won't do the former (on purpose) or the latter.

This is the best part:
Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship."
We know that torture works because when we tortured Abu Zubaydah and then asked, "How do we know you're telling the truth now," he answered, "Because you've tortured me so much that Allah's cool with my telling you the truth." While Thiessen should have recognized this as begging the question, he nonetheless uses the claim in support of his own circular argument - essentially supporting one circularity with another. Thiessen should have quit while he was "ahead", back when he was accusing Obama of burying all the evidence of how great torture is.

If torture is so great, and is so defensible, why did the Bush Administration work so hard to distance itself from the term? Why does Thiessen still attempt to advance a rhetorical sleight of hand - under which we want to inflict so much agony on a terrorist suspect (in Thiessen's words, "help[ing] the terrorist do his duty to Allah") that he cannot take any more brutality (at which point, in Thiessen's words, the suspect has "reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship")? If this truly takes waterboarding somebody with the astonishing frequency that was imposed upon KSM, why are people like Thiessen so afraid of a little bit of blood?


  1. Does Thiessen also believe that we should limit our use of torture to Islamic terrorist suspects? Because if they're not Muslim, we can't "help" them by torturing them to the point that telling the truth is fine by Allah.

  2. I wonder if Thiessen knows the history behind the word "decimate".



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