A former military interrogator unpacks the errors and fear-mongering in Marc Thiessen’s Courting Disaster.
By Mattew Alexander
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. That makes his book less a serious discussion of interrogation policy than a literary defense of war criminals. Nowhere in this book will you find the opinions of experienced military interrogators who successfully interrogated Islamic extremists. Not once does he cite Army Doctrine—which warns of the negative consequences of torture and abuse. Courting Disaster is nothing more than the defense’s opening statement in a war crimes trial.
While many of Thiessen’s opinions are appalling from a moral perspective (he justifies torture and abuse through the religious writings of St. Thomas Aquinas), the book is comprised of errors, omissions, and a whopping dose of fear-mongering. I’ll concentrate here on his worst misstatements and why his conclusions ultimately make us less safe.
First, Thiessen promulgates a theory that Islamic extremists are uniquely deserving of torture because they are doctrinally obligated to resist cooperating, after which they may disclose information. Of course this isn’t unique to Islamic extremists. The U.S. military’s own Code of Conduct and the resistance training given American soldiers impose the exact same requirements. Article V, pertaining to interrogations states: I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. Moreover, regardless of our enemy’s resistance philosophy, we have legal obligations to treat them humanely. If an American soldier is captured, would we want his obligation to resist turned into a justification that allows him to be water-boarded into cooperating?
Thiessen also asserts that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not rendered ineffective after his capture (and was still an active combatant) because he had knowledge of future attacks. The CIA was thus justified in torturing him. But every captured enemy has information of future plans or other valuable information about capabilities. Thiessen’s justification could be used to water-board everyone we capture. The standard for detainee treatment is not a sliding scale based on a particular captive’s knowledge. It’s a constant based on law and our principles.
Thiessen also argues that we will never know what other information we would have gotten out of KSM had we not used torture and abuse. But we do know. We need only examine the success of numerous professional interrogators against high-ranking members of al-Qaida. There is Eric Maddox, the U.S. Army interrogator who located Saddam Hussein (as told in his excellent book Mission: Black List #1).There is also Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who successfully interrogated Abu Zubaydah. In Iraq, my own team successfully interrogated many mid- and high-level leaders of al-Qaida while hunting Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Serious interrogators have little doubt that we would have gotten better information from KSM, and sooner, had the interrogations been conducted by professional interrogators using noncoercive techniques.
Another mischaracterization in Courting Disaster is Thiessen’s claim that CIA water-boarding is identical to the water-boarding given American troops in training. Thiessen calls it “absurd” to believe we would torture our own troops. But if it were the same as the training given American troops, detainees would be told beforehand that it’s temporary and voluntary; they’d have a codeword to make it stop at any time; and be reassured that it would not harm them permanently. 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.
The many omissions from Thiessen’s book are also telling. For instance, in citing case law regarding water-boarding as torture, he fails to mention the case of a Texas sheriff and his deputies who were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for water-boarding prisoners. (The John Yoo torture memos conveniently disregarded this precedent as well.) Thiessen states that water-boarding depicted at Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia is different because it involved dunking a prisoner’s head in a tub of water. But there is a painting at Tuol Sleng of a victim being tortured in the same position CIA interrogators used. For a man so obsessed with tiny details that define away and excuse torture, Thiessen should have caught a large detail that spotlights it.
Throughout his book, Thiessen comes back to a single argument: Abusing prisoners is acceptable because it saves lives. But Army regulations prohibit coercion without exception. Thiessen never bothers to cite military doctrine in his research. Had he read the Army Field Manual’s instructions, he would have to answer for the fact that it cautions: “Revelation of use of torture by US personnel will bring discredit upon the US and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort. It may also place US and allied personnel in enemy hands at greater risk of abuse by their captors.” Torture makes Americans less safe, not more so. The fact that al-Qaida would use Bush’s abusive interrogation policy to recruit new fighters was not a surprise that cropped up after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It was anticipated and codified into Army doctrine long before.
Thiessen argues fatuously that KSM had to be water-boarded because another attack could have been imminent. Thiessen’s juvenile metaphor of KSM giving us the “cover of the puzzle box” to which we had only the pieces displays his ignorance about assembling intelligence clues. His source for this oversimplified view of the intelligence collection process? Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, who is at the top of the list of culpability for war crimes. We already knew what the “puzzle box cover” looked liked after the first World Trade Center bombing. In fact, military intelligence analysts knew what it looked like after the bombing of the Beirut barracks, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, and the U.S. Embassies in Africa. We didn’t need the puzzle cover box. What we did need was the location of Osama Bin Laden, but KSM never gave that up. Every al-Qaida operational commander knows he can give up details already known by U.S. intelligence or information about operations below them and their organization will survive. Their objective is to protect those above them on the ladder, which KSM did astoundingly well. So much for the effectiveness of water-boarding.
Throughout this book, Thiessen argues that the number of detainees water-boarded is just three. He claims that because very few prisoners were ever subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, we are not inquisitors. But we don’t know the exact numbers because there’s never been an independent commission to investigate. The best we can do is an FBI inspector general report released in May 2008 that found FBI agents witnessed hundreds of cases of torture and abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Since FBI agents are only present for, at most, 3 percent of all interrogations, you can extrapolate that U.S. torture victims number in the thousands. That’s assuming we know all the prisons. The FBI I.G. report and other released documents suggest through their redactions that we do not, as does other recent journalistic reporting. Maybe our numbers are lower than the inquisition, but the law is blind to such metrics. After reading Thiessen’s insider revelations, we do know that the rationales were the same.
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.
Our current president is keeping us safe by denying al-Qaida the ability to recruit. President Obama, unlike Thiessen or his former boss, understands that you don’t win this conflict by stopping individual terrorist attacks. You win it by choking off the terrorists’ lifeblood: new fighters. We will never be able to measure how many American lives are saved because of President Obama’s leadership on this issue. But even if lives saved were the only justification for brutal interrogation, more Americans will be endangered by this experiment with torture than saved. This, like so many others, is a fact Thiessen conveniently ignores. Or, perhaps, his book has less to do with courting disaster than courting fear.
Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) is a former senior military interrogator and author of How To Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, To Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. He is currently a Fellow for the Open Society Institute.