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The Unsupportable Defense of the Indefensible

By Dan Froomkin
10:32 AM ET, 01/28/2009

Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen posted a heated response on the National Review's blog on Monday to my suggestion last week that his defense of the Bush administration's torture policies was based on falsehoods.

A little background: The Post last Thursday ran a particularly strident op-ed by Thiessen in which he wrote, among other things, that for President Obama to ban Bush's "enhanced interrogation techniques" would "effectively kill a program that stopped al-Qaeda from launching another Sept. 11-style attack."

Later that day, of course, Obama did it anyway, leading Thiessen to blog: "The CIA program he is effectively shutting down is the reason why America has not been attacked again after 9/11... Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office."

I called Thiessen's assertions about the effectiveness of torture outrageous and unsupported. As part of his argument, Thiessen had cited a slew of alleged plots he said were averted due to such harsh interrogations. I pointed out that it's never been proven that any of those attacks were anything more than fantasy, nor that they were averted due to CIA interrogation.

Thiessen now accuses me of "speaking from a pinnacle of near-perfect ignorance." And then he tells a story of how, in the process of preparing a speech for Bush in 2006, intelligence officials "painstakingly reconstructed how the questioning of these terrorists led to the disruption of plots." He explains one in depth.

Thiessen writes that he was told that a major al-Qaeda figure named Abu Zubaydah, under torture, "provided information that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh — one of the key plotters of the 9/11 attacks and a close associated of KSM [Khalid Sheik Muhammed]." According to Thiessen, Zubaydah and bin al Shibh then provided information that led to KSM's capture. KSM, under torture, then provided information that led to the capture of a Southeast Asian terrorist named Zubair. Zubair then provided information that led to the arrest of his fellow terrorist Hambali. KSM then provided information that led to the arrest of Hambali's brother. And Hambali's brother then provided information "that led us to a cell of 17 [Jemmah Islamiyah] operatives that were going to carry out the West Coast plot."

Little of this is new; Thiessen included most of it in the speech Bush delivered in September 2006 (in the heat of the mid-term elections), and much of it can also be found in a statement released at the same time by the director of national intelligence.

And guess what? It doesn't appear to be remotely true.

Yes, it may be what Thiessen was told -- by people trying to defend the horrible things they had done, and who were trying to tell the White House what it wanted to hear.

But investigative journalists have found that this story -- like all the other ones attempting to justify torture -- falls apart at almost every turn. In this case, the most authoritative reporting has been done by Ron Suskind and is laid out in his book The One Percent Doctrine.

For starters, Zubaydah was not a major player. According to Suskind, he was a mentally ill travel booker who under CIA torture sent investigators chasing after false leads about al-Qaeda plots on American nuclear plants, water systems, shopping malls, banks and supermarkets.

Zubaydah did not, as Bush maintained, identify bin al Shibh. As Spencer Ackerman blogged for the New Republic in 2002: "A Nexis search for 'Ramzi Binalshibh' between September 11, 2001 and March 1, 2002 -- the U.S. captured Abu Zubaydah in March 2002 -- turns up 26 hits for The Washington Post alone. Everyone involved in counterterrorism knew who bin Al Shibh was."

Zubaydah did not, as Thiessen asserts, provide information that led to bin al Shibh's capture. Bin al Shibh was captured almost half a year after Zubayda was, and Suskind reported that the key information about his location came not from Zubaydah but from an al-Jazeera reporter who had interviewed bin al Shibh and KSM at their safehouse apartment in Karachi. The reporter passed the information to his superiors, who passed the information to al-Jazeera's owner, the Emir of Qatar -- a friend of the CIA -- who then passed it to Langley.

Zubaydah did not, as Thiessen asserts, provide information that led to KSM's capture. Suskind reported that a tipster -- a "walk in" -- led the CIA directly to KSM and subsequently collected a $25 million reward.

And skipping ahead to the end of Thiessen's tale, the West Coast plot has been debunked repeatedly. It's never been clear that the alleged plot to fly an airplane into the tallest building on the West Coast was ever more than a pipe dream. After Bush first mentioned the plot in February 2006, Peter Baker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the... scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk."

The Bush White House never provided any independently verifiable information to support its claims that extreme measures helped keep Americans safe. Indeed, in this particular case, at least one key bit of evidence was made to vanish. Zubaydah's entire interrogation was captured on CIA videotapes -- that the CIA destroyed in 2005.

Why should anyone care about this particular deceit? After all, even if torture did work, it's still morally indefensible. Well, the reason I keep calling attention to the misleading and fabricated assertions of the now-former Bush administration is that it's important to remember that they didn't tell us the truth, that we still don't really know what they did in our name, and that, if some people have their way, we never will.

Here's what Suskind had to say in an e-mail to me yesterday: "Almost all the valuable information offered by Zubaydah -- and there was some -- was obtained with traditional debriefing, especially certain artful uses of the Koran and Zubaydah's believe in predestination. The point, made again and again by the leading interrogation experts in the U.S. government: torture doesn't work. It is misleading to frame this debate in terms of doing whatever's necessary to get the information we desperately needed. CIA and some DOD interrogators -- legally unleashed and encouraged to improvise by a go-with-your-gut, expert-phobic White House -- forfeited some of America's most cherished principles for virtually nothing. They got very little with their 'enhanced methods.' And what they did obtain could have just as easily been yielded by traditional methods. What was lost, in terms of America's most precious asset -- its moral authority? Where does one begin? This is the hard truth that responsible public servants -- past and present -- should, at this point, acknowledge. Instead, some dead enders are relying on the fact that files remain classified and videotapes have been destroyed to confuse this issue at a time when the country is crying out for clarity. Right now, America's position should be: we tortured some people in these troubled years since 9/11, it didn't work, we shouldn't have done it, we've learned from our mistakes and we commit to never doing it again. That's what a mature nation does. It evolves."

Jane Mayer, in her book The Dark Side, substantiates many of Suskind's findings, and concludes that "whatever their motives, it appears the President and the Director of Central Intelligence gave the public misleadingly exaggerated accounts of the effectiveness of the abuse they authorized. Some might impute dishonest motives to them. But it seems more likely that they fooled not just the public, but also themselves."

I'll generously put Thiessen in that category.

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