Marc Thiessen in Foreign Policy:
The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning — and that is putting the country at risk. As one high-ranking CIA official explained to me, in an interview for my book Courting Disaster, “In the wake of 9/11, [the CIA] put forward a program that had a lethal component to strike back at the people who did this. But the other component was to prevent this kind of catastrophe from happening again. And for that, killing people — especially killing senior al Qaeda leaders — is potentially counterproductive in that we can’t know or learn of future attacks. You can’t kill them all, and you don’t want to kill them all from an intelligence standpoint. We needed to know what they knew.”
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA worked with Pakistani and other intelligence services to hunt down senior terrorist leaders and take them in for interrogation. Among those captured were men like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka “Hambali”), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others. In all, about 100 terrorists were detained and questioned by the CIA. And the information they provided helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London’s financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can’t tell you their plans to strike America.
Obama’s drone campaign is costing the United States vital intelligence, and it has also exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy. The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?
It is true that Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush also reportedly increased the use of drone strikes against senior terrorist leaders toward the end of his term. But the Bush administration also maintained and exercised the CIA’s capability to capture and interrogate such leaders. Obama has now dramatically escalated drone strikes while eliminating what is arguably the most important and successful intelligence programs in the war on terror. This is not a sign of Obama’s seriousness. To the contrary, he is using drones as cover for his dangerous decision to eliminate the CIA’s capability to take terrorist leaders in alive and question them effectively for actionable intelligence. That is nothing to praise.
Peter Baker in NYT:
“The handling of detainee issues is going to be a huge, huge issue in the period ahead,” said Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush.
“For six years,” Mr. Thiessen added, “the left has had a field day with this, running around saying we tortured people and comparing us to the Spanish Inquisition.” Now, he said, the politics have turned. “It’s a huge vulnerability for Obama and the Democrats, and Republicans are starting to gather their courage and talking about this.”
Democrats see the criticism as expedience more than courage, noting that under Mr. Bush, terrorists were charged in civilian court, read Miranda rights and given lawyers.
“The one thing that’s changed is there’s now a Democratic president instead of a Republican president,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “It’s fairly obvious that a lot of the criticism is being driven by politics and not substance.”
I’m fairly certain that I’ve only compared Bush administration interrogation techniques to the Spanish Inquisition while seated. But at the end of the day, the reason the Bush administration’s preferred torture methods get compared to the Spanish Inquisition is that they used techniques cribbed from the Spanish Inquisition:
Its use was first documented in the 14th century, according to Ed Peters, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. It was known variously as “water torture,” the “water cure” or tormenta de toca — a phrase that refers to the thin piece of cloth placed over the victim’s mouth.
At the time, using water to induce confessions was “a normal incident of law,” Peters says, and people viewed it more or less as we view a cross-examination today. If anything, Peters says, the Inquisitors “were more careful about it” than others of their time. [...]
“The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth. The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jars [of water] consumed, sometimes reaching to six or eight,” writes Henry Charles Lea in A History of the Inquisition of Spain.
“The thing you could not do in torture was injure the body or cause death,” Peters says. That was — and still is — what makes waterboarding such an attractive interrogation technique, he says: It causes great physical and mental suffering, yet leaves no marks on the body.
Now it’s true that Thiessen’s pals’ appropriation of a Spanish Inquisition torture method was more-or-less a coincidence. The lineal descent of their torture methods is rather different. US soldiers taken captive by Chinese forces during the Korean War were often tortured in order to induce false confessions of war crimes and such. Consequently, the American military compiled a manual that detailed the kind of torture techniques the Chinese used and offered training in torture-resistance. The Bush administration decided to turn that around and start applying many of the same methods to terrorism suspects. As a result of convergent evolution of torture practices, it seems that various figures interested in coerced confessions—Spanish Inquisitors, People’s Liberation Army, Khmer Rouge, etc.—all hit upon the basic idea behind waterboarding.
Thiessen responds at The Corner:
Take this description, which I quote in the book, from Henry Charles Lea’s 1906 volume, A History of the Inquisition in Spain:
The patient was placed on . . . a kind of trestle with sharp-edged rungs across it like a ladder. It slanted so that the head was lower than the feet and, at the lower end was a depression in which the head sank, while an iron band around the forehead or throat made it immovable. Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves. . . .
The cords on the rack, Lea writes,
were carried to a maestro garrote by which the executioner could control all at once. These worked not only by compression, but by traveling around the limbs, carrying away skin and flesh. Each half round was reckoned a vuelta or turn, six or seven of which was the maximum, but it was usual not to exceed five. Formerly the same was done with the cord around the forehead, but this was abandoned as it was apt to start the eyes from their sockets.
Once the “patient” was secured to the rack, Lea explains,
An iron prong, distended the mouth, a toca, or strip of linen was thrust down the throat to conduct water trickling slowly from a jarra or jar, holding usually a little more than a quart. The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth. The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jarras consumed, sometimes reaching six or eight.
Needless to say, none of this even remotely resembles what was done by the CIA. No sharp cords cutting into the flesh; no iron prong distending the mouth; no strip of linen thrust down the throat to carry the water into the internal organs. No comparison whatsoever. But folks like Yglesias continue to make the specious comparison. And so each time I feel obligated to respond, to defend the honor of the courageous men and women of the CIA who kept us safe and who cannot defend themselves.
They deserve better. But at least they can take some satisfaction in knowing that when folks like Yglesias open their mouths on this topic, they demonstrate once again that they are speaking from a pinnacle of near-perfect ignorance.
Courting Disaster is Thiessen’s book, and if he wants me to read it he’ll have to force water down my throat to induce the sensation of drowning. But having summed that up, we come to Thiessen’s big point. It turns out that during the Spanish inquisition, in addition to the basic “water cure” elements beloved by Thiessen they also used “Sharp cords, called cordeles, which cut into the flesh, attached the arms and legs to the side of the trestle and others, known as garrotes, from sticks thrust in them and twisted around like a tourniquet till the cords cut more or less deeply into the flesh, were twined around the upper and lower arms, the thighs and the calves.” So you see, it’s totally different—when Thiessen and friends were running the show, they did tie people down to boards (like in the Spanish Inquisition!) and they did pour water on them (like in the Spanish Inquisition!) but in the Spanish version they used the cords to cause additional painful torture whereas in the more refined Bush/Rumsfeld/Thiessen era the water torture itself was deemed sufficient!
And that, my friends, is the advance of civilization over time.
I suppose the natural question to ask, though, is why these kind of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge and the Korean War-era People’s Liberal Army seem to bother torture advocates so much. The basic point made by torture advocates (when they’re not quibbling about whether or not you should call techniques poached from a torture resistance manual “torture”) is that the problem with liberals is that we’re not sufficiently willing to engage in brutal treatment of prisoners in order to compel their cooperation. But do you know who really didn’t shy away from brutal treatment of prisoners? The Spanish Inquisition! The Khmer Rouge! These are people who knew how to get the job done and it strikes me as deeply hypocritical of torture fans to turn around and get all squeamish and liberal when they hear that the inquisitors added a garrote or two into the torturing fun. The core element of the water torture is the same, even though different iterations of it are conducted in somewhat different ways—that’s the point of the Inquisition comparison.
I’m the kind of weak-kneed liberal who thinks that the government of a free people neither must nor should seek security through torture, so I’ll concede that I’m not nearly as well-versed in the precise ins-and-outs of different ways of torturing as a sicko like Thiessen is. But what’s the point. If torture in the name of a good cause is as awesome as Thiessen says it is, then why is it such a point of pride to try to maintain that what he advocates isn’t quite as brutal as what was done in the Inquisition? Could it be that somewhere lurking beneath the defensiveness, the partisanship, the blinkered worldview, and the immorality is a little nub of a conscience?
Back the predator drones, Thiessen:
Matthew Yglesias Tweets my cover story in today’s Foreign Policy, “Dead Terrorists Tell No Tales.”
In it, I point out that sending Predators to kill senior terrorist leaders is a less-than-optimal approach to protecting the nation, because a dead terrorist cannot tell you his plans for new attacks. When we located KSM in 2003, we didn’t send a Predator to kill him; we captured him alive and brought him in for interrogation. Same for Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka “Hambali”), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others.
The information they provided the CIA helped break up terrorist cells that were planning to blow up the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti; explode seven airplanes flying across the Atlantic from London to cities in North America; and fly hijacked airplanes into Heathrow Airport, London’s financial district, and the Library Tower in Los Angeles. If we had killed them, there would likely be craters in Karachi, Djibouti, London, and Los Angeles to match the one in New York City.
Today, the Obama administration is no longer attempting to capture men like these alive; it is simply killing them. This may be satisfying, but it comes at a price. With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al-Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him.
Yglesias’s response to these arguements? He Tweets “Hilarious, @marcthiessen is upset that Barack Obama is too good at killing terrorists.”
Which raises the question: Did he actually read the article? Or was 900 words too much for him to handle?
The piece would make sense if only Thiessen were willing to write in the English language. He is, as we’ve seen, an advocate of torture. He thinks torture is an excellent thing, and like the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition he thinks it’s morally obligatory for the government to torture people. From inside this twisted mental space, the notion that killing terrorists is too soft on terror starts to make sense. After all, in Thiessenland it’s better to let four terrorists go free if that lets you torture a fifth. That’s just how awesome he thinks torture is. But he won’t write the word “torture” or say clearly “the problem with Obama killing these terrorists is that he should be torturing them.”
At any rate, it turns out it was actually Darth Vader, rather than Don Rumsfeld, who said “you are free to use any methods necessary, but I want them alive.”
First, he admits he has not read my book (“if he wants me to read it he’ll have to force water down my throat to induce the sensation of drowning.”) In other words, he acknowledges he is willfully ignorant (“I’ll concede that I’m not nearly as well-versed in the precise ins-and-outs of different ways of torturing as a sicko like Thiessen is. But what’s the point.”) and he is uninterested in correcting said ignorance. Matthew doesn’t even feel the need to get informed on what the other side is saying. Heck of a way to make your case, Matthew. “I don’t know as much about the topic the person I’m criticizing but here’s why he’s wrong.” You don’t need to put a dime in my pocket to get informed Matthew. Just grab a “comfy chair” at Borders or your local library, and you might seem a bit less of an ignoramus.
Second, Yglesias exposes his ignorance even in his explanation of why he has not read my book. He already admits in his post that the CIA did not use sharp cords to rip apart the flesh of the terrorists, as the Spanish Inquisition did. But if he had read Courting Disaster, he would also know that the CIA never “forced water” down the throats of terrorists. (He even includes a picture alongside his post of Inquisitors forcing a device down the throats of a man to fill his innards with water). This is a technique called “pumping” that was employed by Imperial Japan and other despotic regimes. They would force water into their victims until their internal organs expanded painfully (the Japanese even fed them uncooked rice first which then expanded inside their bowels when it made contact with the water), and the victims passed out from the pain. The torturers would then jump on the victims’ stomachs to make them vomit — reviving them so they could then start the process over again. The CIA never did anything even remotely like this. A few seconds of water being poured over the mouths of terrorists, never entering their stomach or lungs, does not compare to these tortures. Yet Yglesias and his ilk want you to believe the CIA did the same thing. They are either deeply uninformed or intentionally lying.
Third, critics like Yglesias really do themselves a disservice by insisting that the CIA and the Spanish Inquisition used the same techniques. It just makes them seem ridiculous. Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge. That they stake their ground on this specious argument shows how vapid their case is.
Finally, Matthew writes: “Marc Thiessen and his friends aren’t very smart and they are very immoral. They love inflicting violence.” Really, Matthew? We love inflicting violence? We aren’t smart? These are the kinds of arguments people make when they are uninformed and incapable of engaging the other side on the basis of the facts.
Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up
Julian Sanchez put it, perhaps, best in a tweet:
Does Marc Thiessen realize how depraved his “defenses” sound? “But, but… there were these PINCERS when the Inquisition did it!”
As it happens, I have a friend who’s both been waterboarded and subjected others to waterboarding. His name is Malcolm Nance. Malcolm used to be an instructor for Naval special forces, and in 2007 he described the experience of how terrifying and thoroughly torturous being waterboarded is. We were at an Adams-Morgan coffee shop and it was chilling. Shortly afterward, he shared the experience with a congressional panel; here he is making his points before a similar one. Listen to him and it’s plain: waterboarding is not something civilized people do to prisoners in their custody. Is it exactly like the Spanish Inquisition? If you start asking the question like that and believe the answer to be significant, the jig is up. It’s too fucking close for a civilized people, let alone citizens of the world’s greatest nation, to ever perform.
Another thing. Thiessen says that Yglesias, by being descriptive, is slandering the CIA. Malcolm has worked alongside U.S. intelligence agents, in some of the most dangerous circumstances, for about as long as I’ve been alive. In my six or so years reporting on national security, I’ve spoken with a number of CIA agents and officials who consider waterboarding to be disgusting. They’re not angry with anyone for pointing out how repugnant it is. They’re angry with those people, like Thiessen’s colleagues in the Bush administration, who ordered the agency to debase itself by performing it.
Thiessen is correct when he says that
Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge.
They cannot believe that because it does not square with their whole concept of America. What they don’t fully understand is how radically Bush and Cheney and Thiessen assaulted the core idea of America in their period in office.
And, yes, there are distinctions between water-boarding and water-torture. So far as we now, the CIA didn’t force large amounts of water into someone’s stomach. But the principle of using water as a torture tactic is the same, along with the sensation of drowning. What’s indisputable is that Thiessen backs the Khmer Rouge version, memorialized below in Cambodia’s museum of torture. It is exactly the same as the CIA’s, with a cloth over the face so that no water actually goes down into the lungs, but tricks the body into feeling that it does. The same tilted board, the hands and feet bound, and repeated up to 183 times. There is simply no moral, historical, legal debate that this is now and always has been torture.
Will at The League on the predator article:
Thiessen also suggests that the Obama Administration is deliberately avoiding efforts to capture terrorists because high-level interrogations would force “hard decisions” about what’s “needed to protect the United States.” By “hard decisions,” Thiessen is presumably referring to the use of torture, a cause he’s championed tirelessly in recent months. This is a clever insinuation, but it’s worth noting that the Obama Administration opposes torture not only on moral grounds, but also because it’s not particularly effective. If we take the Administration at its word that conventional interrogation techniques work better than torture, there’s no real political incentive for Obama to deliberately avoid capturing terrorists.
Despite his enthusiasm for mistreating prisoners, Thiessen does raise one important point. Namely, the moral contradiction between opposing torture and endorsing targeted airstrikes:
The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?
My intuition is that airstrikes are appropriate if the military takes all reasonable precautions to avoid civilian casualties. My thoughts on this issue are pretty unformed, however, so I thought I’d throw these questions at the commentariat: Why does the status of terrorists change so dramatically after they’ve been captured? Is it because we can afford to treat enemies better once they’re detained and rendered harmless? Or does being held in captivity fundamentally change a detainee’s moral status?
Matthew Duss and Eli Lake at Bloggingheads
UPDATE: More Sullivan
Mike Potemra at The Corner
Andy McCarthy at The Corner
Marc Thiessen at The Corner
Conor Fridersdorf at The American Scene
Andrew Sullivan with a round-up
UPDATE #3: Matthew Schmitz at The League