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The Unsupportable Defense of the Indefensible

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.

By Dan Froomkin  |  January 28, 2009; 10:32 AM ET
Categories:  Looking Backward , Torture  
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Next: Obama's First Big Bill


Thiessen is a complete idiot. he's lucky that we, the American people, are not hauling his @$$ to prison. He should keep his mouth shut.

Posted by: August30 | January 28, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Yes, we should be true "humanitarians" and applaud Obama policy of assassinating terrorism suspects without trial. That is so much more moral.

If Froomkin really believed any of his "human rights" or "due process" drivel, he would be excoriating Obama for his extra-judicial assassinations. However, Froomkin doesn't care about any of that. He just wants to attack any who din't share his narrow partisan views.

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Just be clear:

Detaining someone without trial is "horrible"

Assassinating someone without trial is just peachy with Dan.

Froomkin's moral inconsistency demonstrates how much his endless yammering about Bush was rooted in base partisanship.

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Interesting reporting, thanks. I wonder if Thiessen can offer more substantial evidence to support his claims, or if he's going to pretend your response hasn't shredded his claims and credibility.

Posted by: bsimon1 | January 28, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

How can one decry harsh interrogation of untried terror suspects, yet support the murder of untried terror suspects?

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

@ bobmoses: Police have guns for those times when events need to be brought under control, but courts take over thereafter. It doesn't make any more sense to mount a courtroom to a Predator drone than to harm a prisoner who is under your control.

Posted by: mobedda | January 28, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Moses, you just made three unsupported assertions regarding the murder of untried terror suspects:

please, put up the facts, or put the crayons down.

Posted by: vigor | January 28, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

ok, bobmoses, I'll bite.

What the hell are you talking about?

Posted by: DDAWD | January 28, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Also, our failure to achieve perfection [vis-à-vis human rights or any other concern] is no reason to avoid incremental successes altogether. False choices are a cynical and destructive tactic, but they do seem to work on those who prefer being right to being accurate.

Posted by: mobedda | January 28, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

You had me going until I read this:

"But investigative journalists have found that this story -- like all the other ones attempting to justify torture -- falls apart at almost every turn."

Investigative journalists??? C'mon we all know they don't exist anymore. Just propagandists (like yourself) to further a political party with slanted reporting.

Posted by: playfair109 | January 28, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Ah so, we can believe Suskind because Dan says so and not believe Thiessen because Dan says so.

Posted by: ronjaboy | January 28, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Rats, an excellent daily column of substantive length is being reconfigured into a blog -- where fairly short posts will now be followed by column after column of bloviating by readers like bobmoses, who are given equal font size with the column itself, as if they knew anything like as much about the subject as Froomkin does.

The democratization of the media is by no means an unmixed blessing.

Posted by: herzliebster | January 28, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I never understand why journalist, especially columnists and investigative reporters, use sugar coated terms to describe behaviors of the Bush administration. Words like, untruths, fantassy, etc.

Let;s face it, they LIED, and are continuing their old lies by adding on more new lies to cover their past misdeeds. Never "misunderestimate" their capacity to do evil dees, say evil things.

Posted by: steviana | January 28, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

mobedda -

Hmm. So cops can just go and intentionally kill untried suspects, making no attempt to apprehend them? What country do you live in?

vigor & DDAWD -

Are you both unaware of the missile strike that killed eight untried terrorism suspect (along with a bunch of civilians)? Do you get your news solely from Froomkin's cherry-picked blog?

Let me help you:

"ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan urged President Barack Obama to halt U.S. missile strikes on al-Qaida strongholds near the Afghan border, saying Saturday that civilians were killed the previous day in the first attacks since Obama's inauguration.

Pakistani security officials said eight suspected foreign militants, including an Egyptian al-Qaida operative, were among 22 people killed in Friday's twin strikes in the Waziristan region.

But the Foreign Ministry said that the attacks by unmanned aircraft also killed an unspecified number of civilians and that it had informed U.S. officials of its "great concern.""

None of that bothers you? It doesn't bother me, but neither did Bush's actions

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

No, Dan isnt' telling you who to believe. He is merely pointing out facts, corroborrated by research. Thiessen is not, has no evidence to substantiate his claims. What he did proffer has been, as pointed out by bsimon, has been thoroughly shredded and revealed as a lie by Dan.

But you go ahead and believe what you want.

Posted by: osmor | January 28, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I'll go ahead and call Thiessen a liar, Bushie shill, and war criminal.
The perpetuation of lies by Bushies like Thiessen show hy it's so necessary to investigatte the Bushie administration and to prosecute where appropriate.
Only by prosecuting those who would squander our Nation's moral standing will we start to do the hard work of restoring our place in the world.
Forcing Karl Rove to testify before Congress is a good start; Thiessen should be added to the list.

Posted by: jeffc6578 | January 28, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

jeffc6578 -

What do you think Obama's missile strikes on untried suspects and civilians, done over the objection of a sovereign nation do to our "moral standing"?

Do you really care? Or are you just using all of this rhetoric as a partisan attack?

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Wow. It sure got quiet here.


Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Ronjaboy Susking has his argument documented and laid out with evidence for all to see. Thiessen offers only rhetoric with no suppporting evidence. One more case of "trust us" fromt he former regime.

Wow bobmoses, you showed everyone here. Apparently Obama is in operational control of every tiny event that occured during his adminsitration, while Bush was not so involved, well, depending on if it was good news or not, then Bush was involved. Yoru point is foolish, yet sadly you have no idea how foolish, do you?

Posted by: m_mcmahon | January 28, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

So let me ask you bobmoses - when the Bush administration was approving all those Predator drone attacks done over the last few years, did you support that? Or are you just another Bush apologist?

Posted by: cpusss | January 28, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

I do trust Mr. Froomkin's opinion in these matters. If I didn't, I wouldn't be reading this column in the first place!

The right wing apologists can throw all the mud they want, but I think the ball is in their court to a) show why torture is not morally reprehensible, b) demonstrate the results they achieved through torture that could not have been achieved any other way, and c) come clean with the American people about which of their statements over the last eight years were lies and which were truth.

Posted by: fletc3her | January 28, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Does anybody have a clue what BobMoses is blathering on about? Does BobMoses?

Posted by: thrh | January 28, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

@August30 - That's the kind of First Amendment argument we should expect from Froomkin readers. "People who have a different point of view should 'shut up'." Brilliant. Let's bring back a totalitarian state and one party rule and lock up anyone who doesn't toe the Democrat party line.

Posted by: thuff7 | January 28, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Is there anybody here who can say with a straight face that no Viet Cong prisoners were tortured under Kennedy, Johnson & Nixon? No Soviet Cold War spies were ever tortured since Harry Truman was president? Obama swore an oath on Lincoln's bible. The conditions in Union prison camps for Confederat prisoners make Guantanamo Bay look like spring break in the Caribbean. This is NOT a policy limited to Bush admin. Face it, most people who are so offended are those who just hate Bush because he doesn't share their political views.

Posted by: thuff7 | January 28, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I had thought, perhaps naively, that once the President signed the executive order to close Guantanamo, the long-postponed return to decency would be greeted with near unanimous praise.

Little did I realize how shameless and arrogant was the opposition and that they would continue to brazenly support torture, the abuse of prisoners and a gulag of secret prisons outside the rule of law.

I had also thought, that other than holding the president to his promise, there would be little need to continue the fight.

Now I see, and Dan is right to continue reporting on this issue, that public pressure must continue to be brought on these "dead-enders" who would rather continue to disgrace and harm this country than damage their "legacies." If nothing else, this "debate" about an issue that I thought was resolved in 1945 shows the extent to which Bush et. al. have led this country to, in George Eliot's words, "the remoteness of pure pity."

Posted by: JTuckerNYC | January 28, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Theissen does propaganda.

That's his job. Like the boss for whom he wrote speeches, Mr.Theissen knows that it's not propaganda unless and until you say (or in Mr. Theissen's case, write) it over and over again.

By now, maybe he even believes it. No one else does.

I wonder if Mr. Theissen was in the military?

Posted by: Patriot3 | January 28, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse


"Is there anybody here who can say with a straight face that no Viet Cong prisoners were tortured under Kennedy, Johnson & Nixon? No Soviet Cold War spies were ever tortured since Harry Truman was president?"

I can. You know why? Because it's your job to prove it.

I also cannot prove that they did not collaborate with our secret alien masters to harvest the organs of our children.

That is because if you make the claim, you have to back it up.

Oh, not to mention that it wouldn't make the Bush-approved torture *right* even if every single other President ever personally approved of torture.

You fail at both basic logic and human decency. A perfect Bush apologist.

Posted by: alphahelix | January 28, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Thiessen was hired to put a gloss on the lies of the Bush Administration. He probably believes everything he was ever told and has never had any reason to check if it was true.
Ergo, he passes along someone else's lies, a conduit for deception rather than a generator of same.
That doesn't mean he's credible. It also doesn't mean that his boss' negative credibility should be put aside; he did their work in fashioning public statements to cover horrendous wrongdoing and now wants to whitewash their calumnies.
No sale, Mr. Thiessen. Your bosses did evil in the name of fighting evil. You can't hide that, you can't talk around it, and you can't pretend that Obama will make things worse-- not after the disaster into which your bosses led us all.

Posted by: drewbitt | January 28, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Wait, We're all tortured by Froomkin every week, through his ramblings. Moral inconsistency methinks.

Posted by: popopo | January 28, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

An almost defining characteristic of Bush and his hacks is their propensity to repeat things dozens and hundreds of times as if that made them true.

This is particularly striking when the things they're asserting have long since been debunked. But it's also notable as their first, second, and fiftieth response to any question of fact.

They often end up sounding like a four year old child. It's true because I said it because I believe it because I said it because I did because it's true, and you don't understand, it's true he did he did he did he did so yes he did yes yes yes yes yes double yes. Did so! DID SO!

And like four year olds, I suspect they believe their own myths. We may guess they're invested in them fairly well by the time they've repeated them as if they were true 50 times. Does probably make it hard for them to admit even to themselves that, well, it was never true. It was wishful thinking, self serving fabrication, or just plain didn't happen. Ever. That would be hard to cop to, I'm sure.

Back in the reality-based community, we understand that no, torturing KSM got us little or nothing, and sure didn't bring down any major figures or stop any major attacks. Saying otherwise 50 times, or 50 millions times, doesn't make it true. In other news, saying that Saddam had something to do with 9/11 hundreds of times doesn't make that true either.

Posted by: jpk1 | January 28, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

I can not believe that there is still debate about whether America should be a country that tortures. Torture is indefensible, in the literal sense that there are no valid arguments that can defend it. It is not "Bush Derangement Syndrome" or partisan politics to point out that torture is a crime. Torture is immoral, illegal, and ineffective. The Bush administration tortured for the same reason people and governments have tortured in the past: it demonstrates power. It is possible to defend some of Bush's actions, it is not possible to defend torture. Thiessen is trying to make an argument that will keep his boss out of prison. For his sake, I hope he doesn't believe a word he is saying.

Posted by: ddqarch | January 28, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

"CPUSS wrote:

So let me ask you bobmoses - when the Bush administration was approving all those Predator drone attacks done over the last few years, did you support that? Or are you just another Bush apologist?"

LOL. Your simplistic partisan mindset clouds your ability to think. I supported Bush's missiles strikes, just as I do Obama's. My criticism is of Froomkin and the rest of the mindless Bush haters. I am pointing out that they don't care about "due process", they just want to bash Bush.

Mindless partisans seem to think that criticizing Froomkin is the same as criticizing Obama. It is not the same thing. Obama is acting properly in his job. Froomkin is behaving as a mindless partisan and his (and your) moral inconsistency demonstrates this.

Care to answer the question I posed, or are you just an Obama "apologist"?

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

"Does anybody have a clue what BobMoses is blathering on about? Does BobMoses?

Posted by: thrh | January 28, 2009 2:00 PM"

I am referring to OBAMA's missile strikes that killed eight untried terrorism suspects along with fourteen civilians which led to protests by the Pakistani and Afghan government.

Maybe if you didn't let partisans like Froomkin dispense the news they want to you, you might know what your President is doing.

Posted by: bobmoses | January 28, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Thuff7 I can say with a straight face this it was not a national policy to torture anybody during those adminsitrations. Did it happen? Yes, especially in Vietnam. Was it right? No. Was it officially sanctioned? No.

Posted by: m_mcmahon | January 28, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

For bobmoses: The missile strikes are being conducted in a war zone and are covered by international law that determines when combatants may be engaged. When combatants use the civilian population to hide and the civilian population provides support then the combatants may be engaged. Unfortunately we see this time and again where combatants use the local population as shields.

So these are combatants and they don't get a trial. It’s always been that way and always will be that way.

But once a combatant is captured then the individual is no longer a combatant but a prisoner. This made up phrase "unlawful combatant" I guess means since they broke the law we now get to break the law and torture our prisoners? So, to take that to its logical conclusion if anyone breaks any law then they are an "unlawful human" so we do not give them any rights and we can torture or execute them at will.

I served over 20 years in the military and what Bush did shames the nation.

Posted by: in2data | January 28, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I do distinguish between attacks on people who intend us harm and are free to act on that intent, and attacks on people we have under our control. While missile attacks on designated enemy targets carry some moral liabilities, there is at least ambiguity attached to such acts. Torture of enemies we have rendered helpless is unambiguously immoral.

It's far from clear whether Obama's support for cross-border missile strikes is to our advantage or not. Pakistan's protests that those strikes create a great sense of injustice and resentment among the Pakistani people should be taken very seriously, and the violation of Pakistani sovereignty continues to set a dangerous precedent.

What has been proven to work against terrorism again and again is not military force, but police work. I know the fearful find this perspective unpalatable, but terrorism is a class of criminal acts, and by responding to it with military power, we participate in the illusion terroristic organizations wish to project: we legitimize their presence on the world stage.

In the days when we sent policemen to round up suspected terrorists, we didn't seem to have terrorists in control of countries. The military force option seems to be full of holes, so far.

Posted by: lonquest | January 28, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

bobmoses, Obama had been in office what a day and a half when that missle was fired??? Do you really think he ordered this? Don't you think that that order was done by someone based on a plan before Obama was inaugurated? Obama did not start the problems we face today and he is cleaning them up as fast as he can.

Posted by: aevans11 | January 28, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Hey that's great reporting Dan. Very much appreciated. Thanks!

Posted by: 4afreepress | January 28, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

huff is a joke. typical republican: not ready for the 21st century, determined to drag us back into the bad old days.

Posted by: Vizier6 | January 28, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr Thiessen has earned himself an
invite to a congressional hearing.

bobmoses what happened to, "if they can't control their own territory we will" policy you used to spout?

Do you know what our policy is?

Posted by: samellison | January 28, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I am both a veteran and an attorney.

We have centuries of established international Law of War, that make some things clear: in armed conflict, it is not "murder" if civilians are casualties of an attack on a military target. Sometimes, civilians themselves are the target - for example, the Battle of Britain or the firebombing of Dresden.

Once people are captured, they are prisoners, no longer able to fight, neutralized. The capturing country/army/unit then has a duty to provide for the basic needs of the captive - food, shelter, medical care, protection - until the captive is repatriated.

To kill or injure a collateral person while you are in combat is tragic, but not a crime. To kill or injure a captive is a War Crime.

Posted by: ddipaula1 | January 28, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Thiessen's response in NRO rings hollow in too many ways.

Professional interrogators know that people under torrure will say anything to stop the torture. Some of it may be true and much of it way off base.

I would like to read Thiessen's response to people like US Interrogator Matthew Alexander, author of "How to Break a Terrorist" who used brains to track down and kill Zarqawi. Or refute Col. Larry B. James's account of "Fixing Hell."

How much misinformation was generated from torture and fear-up harsh interrogation methods? How many false leads were generated that wasted $40 billion a year of intelligence and homeland security manpower?

More importantly, why was fear-mongering the business model of the Bush administration?

Posted by: boscobobb | January 29, 2009 2:57 AM | Report abuse

I do not like the new format.
I have been reading Dan Froomkin for years, and very much enjoy his column.
The new format does give us better commenting ability, and some of the comments are good to read, but then there are also a large number of worthless, dogmatic, single-issue-diatribe, nutty and otherwise boring comments.

Posted by: reader991 | January 29, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse


I have to say, if this mutates into a vehicle for folks to do no more than launch venomous rants with no more substance than the need to be venomous, it will be less than I have become accustomed to with your columns. Please consider monitoring this and making corrections to the format if necessary. I am a faithful reader who is NOT interested in partisan tirades. Just one opinion. Thanks.

Posted by: geoffreyshannon | January 29, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

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