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Posted at 12:17 PM ET, 11/29/2010

Marc Thiessen's enduring affection for torture

By Adam Serwer

Last week, I wrote that many of those writing in support of the military commissions in the aftermath of the Ahmed Ghailani verdict, like Marc Thiessen, were actually just writing in support of torture. Then Thiessen obliged me by proving my point, spending a few sentences defending the military commissions and a few hundred words defending the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation program."

This is because a defense of the military commissions is very hard to make. In their entire history, only five convictions have been secured through military commissions, most through plea agreement, while civilian courts convicted hundreds throughout the same period. They've yielded light sentences, except in one case where the accused simply boycotted the trial. Even with the rules tilted towards the government, they have proven to be ineffective. They're expensive and more vulnerable to overturn on appeal than convictions in civilian court. Conservatives support them not because of their efficacy, but because they sound tough. Thiessen of course, is a perfect example of this. The Obama administration's hybrid approach to trying terrorists is, sadly, almost indistinguishable from that of Obama's predecessor and Thiessen's former boss.

Thiessen addresses none of the military commissions' glaring flaws, instead merely hiding behind the words of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, whom I noted has become much more partisan since leaving government service. Mukasey stated, "There is no question that valuable information was gotten from him that led to evidence that could have been used against him in a military commission."

This is just factually inaccurate. Even Thiessen implicitly admits that it's factually inaccurate, because in his conclusion he states that "there is no consensus that a military commission would have rejected the same evidence that was excluded in Ahmed Ghailani's civilian trial." In other words, there is question, and Thiessen himself admits Mukasey is overstating by suggesting otherwise.

Thiessen then offers this weak rhetorical defense of Mukasey:

So those who agree with civilian trials are "legal experts" but those who disagree are "partisan figures"?

I offered a pretty clear reason for this characterization in my initial post: Mukasey is now a partisan figure because he's taken to writing op-eds attacking the president that directly contradict rulings he made as a federal judge, and, in this case, making pronouncements so strident Thiessen himself has to qualify them. Thiessen didn't respond to the former point because, well, he doesn't have a response.

David Frakt, Thiessen's other source, is a former military commissions defense attorney who represented an Afghan teenager who had been subjected to the "Frequent Flier" sleep deprivation program. Obviously, Frakt has some hands-on-experience dealing with such matters.

The problem is Thiessen, as he is wont to do, overstates the conclusions of his source. After Thiessen's original op-ed weeks ago, I emailed Frakt myself to find out if Thiessen had accurately represented his views. Frakt told me:

[Thiessen] overstates things when he says that it would be practically certain that the evidence would be admitted in a commission, but I like the fact that Thiessen finally admits what I, and others, have been saying all along -- the neocons want to use military commissions precisely because they believe they can get convictions in military commissions using coerced evidence that they know would not be admissible elsewhere.

"Believe" is the key point. Because while people like Thiessen and Mukasey have continued to portray the admission of such evidence as a near or virtual certainty, in fact the evidence in this case weighs in the opposite direction. They want to believe the evidence would be admissible because they want to minimize the damage done by the Bush administration's policy of torturing terror suspects, making it harder to bring the guilty to justice. The purpose of those military commissions regulations is to account for the "inherently coercive" nature of battlefield captures, not allow evidence gleaned from torturing someone in a secret prison for years.

Which brings me to another point -- Thiessen's overstated defense of torture. Thiessen writes:

Not only did Judge Kaplan unequivocally conclude that Ghailani's CIA interrogation produced valuable intelligence, but he did so based on the arguments of the Obama Justice Department, which attested to the effectiveness of Ghailani's interrogation in a detailed brief to the court.

Notice this rhetorical sleight of hand. I never said that the CIA never got valuable information from Ghailani by torturing him, nor did I say Judge Kaplan said that. What I said was that Thiessen mislead by omitting Kaplan's qualifying statement in Thiessen's original op-ed, in which Thiessen quoted Kaplan saying, "this valuable intelligence could not have been obtained except by putting Ghailani into the [CIA] program." What Kaplan actually wrote was "the government had reason to believe this valuable intelligence could not have been obtained except by putting Ghailani into the [CIA] program." It's pathetic that Thiessen seems to think that omitting that qualifying statement isn't a mischaracterization of what Kaplan wrote.

Thiessen goes on to excerpt the Obama Justice Department's legal filings, which don't defend the CIA's interrogation methods, but rather Ghailani's treatment as an intelligence asset in the context of arguing that his right to a speedy trial was not violated. They don't comment at all on the effectiveness of those methods, but on whether or not the CIA was justified in detaining him for the purposes of interrogation.

Thiessen then quotes Kaplan's response, agreeing that Ghailani's right to a speedy trial was not violated, ignores Kaplan's qualifier that "the government had reason to believe" the new methods were necessary, and then triumphantly writes "case closed," as though he's just proved that his point. Instead of bludgeoning Post readers with non-sequitor block quotes, next time Thiessen should just post a few animated GIFs of Chewbacca the Wookie.

As I said initially, it would be odd for Judge Kaplan or Obama administration lawyers to come to a more definitive conclusion about the effectiveness of such methods than the CIA inspector general did in 2004, when he wrote that "The effectiveness of particular interrogation techniques in eliciting information that might not otherwise have been obtained cannot be so easily measured." That's the point. Thiessen wants to restrict the argument to whether or not information was obtained, rather than whether the use of illegal, immoral interrogation methods that ultimately make the prosecution of terrorists more difficult were absolutely necessary to obtain it. Thiessen can't say for certain that they were, but he does because he feels that's the best way to justify their use.

As for his defense of the military commissions, one of Thiessen's legal sources has shown his willingness to contradict his own rulings when attacking the other party. The other says Thiessen overstated what he told him. Meanwhile, the former chief prosecutor of the military commissions, a former Bush-era assistant attorney general and the judge in the case himself say that that it's likely the testimony would have been disallowed.

In all honesty, the fact that we are even arguing whether or not evidence gleaned from the use of torture techniques originally meant to elicit false confessions should be admissible in court seems utterly surreal. Thiessen's ongoing, peculiar fascination with torture has lead him to believe having a court system that would allow such statements would be a virtue rather than an utter disgrace to everything the United States is meant to stand for.

Adam Serwer is a staff writer with The American Prospect, where he writes his own blog.

By Adam Serwer  | November 29, 2010; 12:17 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy and national security  
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Of all the repulsive aspects of today's GOP ("We put the Con in Conservatism!") surely these pasty, pudgy chicken-hawks are a nadir. But, then again, there is a LOT to choose from.

Posted by: wbgonne | November 29, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

I suppose the left will not "let go" that that United States has been dragged into a war in the Middle East - with terrorists as our enemies.

The left will not "let go" of the fact that we have to fight this war - and we have to use tactics which do not allow us to use the traditional rules created for the battlefield - where most civilians are separated, out of range.

The left is down a dead-end on these issues. When Bush was in office, they could "blame Bush" and claim unconsitutional acts (without merit) - and tell themselves they were right everytime the poll numbers moved.

And yet, now Obama is in office and the responsibility of office is on Obama and the democrats - everything is different now that partisan arguments do not work in the liberals' favor.

Anyway, traditionally, in America, foreign policy was bipartisan - politics stopped at the waters' edge. And Americans presented a united front to the rest of the world.

The democrats BROKE this long-held tradition in America - and perhaps we should just go back to that tradition.



Posted by: RainintheForest | November 29, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Torture is morally unacceptable and totally ineffective.

That's why the GOP loves it.

Posted by: Ethan2010 | November 29, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

pasty, pudgy chicken-hawks

Very nice, wb.

Posted by: pragmaticagain | November 29, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Do any of you wonder what these "pasty, pudgy chicken-hawks" do for fun? I mean, do you think they get off on imagining torture? Thiessen regularly looks like he's about to start drooling when he talks about torture....

Posted by: LAB2 | November 29, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse


I bet you would give up who you are working for - right away

it is not ineffective

Posted by: RainintheForest | November 29, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse


...and, I've thought Thiessen was pretty "patheric" since I read his first op-ed.

Posted by: edismae | November 29, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse


Mark Kirk will take office today - so the Republicans will hold 42 seats in the Senate.

The liberal agenda will need 2 votes at a minimum to break a filibuster.

Remember Joe Manchin campaigned not being willing to be a "rubber stamp" - and Manchin is up for re-election in 2 years - so don't expect him to make any high-profile votes for the liberal agenda. That means the liberals need 3 votes.

However, a closer look at the situation yields are larger issue.

The democrats have 14 Senators who are up for re-election in states which are vulnerable for them. For those 14 democrats to start to take high-profile votes on the liberal agenda in this atmosphere, one would imagine that behind closed doors, those democrats would be telling Harry Reid to "run out the clock" and not hold votes.

Posted by: RainintheForest | November 29, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Torture is morally unacceptable and totally ineffective.

That's why the GOP loves it.

Posted by: Ethan2010 | November 29, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Ethan: I completely agree and would add just one point. Even though it morally repulsive and completely ineffective the Cons love torture for one simple reason: It feels good. THis is what I mean when I refer to the rot in the Conservative movement. They have taken all the negatives from late 60s Liberalism -- the sense of victimhood. the do it if it feels good mentality -- and melded them with Conservative dogma to get that magical elixir: freedom without responsibility. And the whole country is drunk on it.

Posted by: wbgonne | November 29, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Here's a solution...

Let the intelligence groups and the military as well.. try new stuff too..Thiessen is the guinea pig on ALL new programs.. So when one is finished testing on Thiessen say in Uganda, them ship him to Uzbekistan for a new technique developed for use on the exterior but affects the internal organs that Thiessen has left.. What was the phrase that John Yoo used "to the point of death"... in the infamous "Torture everyone and have fun doing it but don't get caught" memo.. When they're finished in Uzbekistan, he can head immediately to the border region between North Korea and China.. We'll lend him to China as an "ally" to finalize the new strategy and procedures for use on 'other peoples of the world'

Hey, and we make something out of the exercise and have some fun doing it. Thiessen? Who cares....

Posted by: rbaldwin2 | November 29, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

@wbgonne: "Even though it morally repulsive and completely ineffective the Cons love torture for one simple reason: It feels good."

Well, first, how would you know this?

And second . . . does it really? I mean, how good? Like, hot chick and an oil massage with a happy ending good?

And third, how do you know, again?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | November 29, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

RainintheForest @ November 29, 2010 12:47 PM wrote "Ethan

I bet you would give up who you are working for - right away

it is not ineffective
=========== ===========
I agree! Torture is extremely effective. Why, ask McCain ... he was tortured and confessed to any number of things that are not true!

That's how 'not ineffective' torture is.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | November 29, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse


Just why do you think Cons approve of torture? It doesn't work, it is morally repulsive, and it diminishes America's standing in the world. But acting tough and inflecting pain feels good for bullies. And that's exactly what Thieseen and the GOP Cons are all about. I guess you can call them sadists if you like. I don't mind.

P.S., Don't blame me because you signed onto Conservatism after it was already a corrupt shell devoid of ideas and loyal only to power and money.

Posted by: wbgonne | November 29, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

wbgone can't answer the question. Instead the unfounded assertions are just repeated. We always take a risk when we seek to ascribe motivations to the behavior of others. This is no exception. some proof of the assertions about the alleged sadism of others.

For myself, I don't approve of torture at all. but I have no qualms about the fact that three murderous mulsim thugs were waterboarded. Waterboarding presents a huge problem for the American left. It treads the definitional line and it works. so liberals have defined torture down to suit their world view. And one aspect of that world view is on display above. It works like this: Liberals good. Conservatives corrupt sadists. Calling waterboarding torture helps liberals convince themselves of their own righteousness.

yeah, right. Keep up the sneering dismisal of your political opponents. It is the best way I can think of to assure your continue marginalization.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 29, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

@wbgonne: "But acting tough and inflecting pain feels good for bullies."

And you know this, how? And . . . how good does it feel?

"P.S., Don't blame me because you signed onto Conservatism after it was already a corrupt shell devoid of ideas and loyal only to power and money."

Not blaming you for anything. Just curious how you know what it feels like to torture. Seems an odd assertion to make.


"That's how 'not ineffective' torture is."

Torture for confessions versus "enhanced interrogation" for verifiable information is not necessarily the same thing, though neither may be morally justifiable, one is going to invariably be more effective at the desired goal. I understand Khalid Shaikh Mohammed essentially took his captors to terrorism school and largely deconstructed the organization of Al Qaeda for his captors after having been water boarded. If, as they claim, they got a great deal of actionable intelligence from Shaikh Mohammed, then waterboarding must have been at least somewhat effective. Now, that may not be true, and may just be propaganda created for the purpose of justifying torture, due to the visceral pleasure it apparently generates in numerous conservatives, and wbgonne.

However, it stands to reason that interrogation for verifiable information will have some greater degree of effectiveness than torturing for confessions because they are trying to acquire specific, actionable data that will either be true or not true, and, if not true, will end up being a negative for the captive who was tortured. Who will still be a captive, and knows he will be, once the inaccuracy of his information is discovered.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | November 29, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

"Not blaming you for anything. Just curious how you know what it feels like to torture. Seems an odd assertion to make."

Kevin, please try to stay awake. Thieseen, Cheney and the rest of the pasty, pudgy chickenhawks don't actually DO the torturing. They have people to do that for them. But the chickenhawks get to show how tough they are and that feels good.

Good grief, man!

Posted by: wbgonne | November 29, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Again, wbgone can't answer the question. Apparently the repetition of the same slanderous and baseless assertions is the same as "proof" to the liberal mind.

It seems to go like this: It is what I say it is. I don't need to provide and stinking proof.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | November 29, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Keep in mind that the ruling wasn't about admitting statements made by Ahmed Ghailani while being tortured, but rather excluding testimony of another witness, Hussein Abebe under the "fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine".

As an aside, this also discredits the "torture doesn't work" argument since Hussein Abebe's credibility wasn't challenged, only the way in which the government learned about him.

Posted by: jnc4p | November 29, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

@wbgonne: "They have people to do that for them. But the chickenhawks get to show how tough they are and that feels good."

Oh! Sorry. Dude, it really sounded like you were saying something entirely different.

"Good grief, man"

Sorry. I totally read that wrong. :)

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | November 29, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Terrific article.

Scared to death wimps resort to torture....weaklings who can't stomach any risk, who are willing to cross any moral line to add a speck more safety to their
"quaking in their boots" lives. Men like Thiessen.

Real men - men who can handle a bit of risk, men who have a moral compass and won't break it when life gets a bit scary - those are the tough ones. And judging by the posts here, it looks like there might be a few left. If so, maybe we'll be able to right this ship someday and get back to the place where America prosecuted the kind of abominable behaviors that Thiessen and the majority of Republican legislators seem to support these days..

Posted by: chop1 | November 30, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

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