A former military interrogator unpacks the errors and fear-mongering in Marc Thiessen's Courting Disaster.
The author is a former senior military interrogator who publishes under a psuedonym for security reasons.
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.
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.