Sympathy For The Thiessen

thiessenMaybe we should show former Bush administration speechwriter/current torture advocate Marc Thiessen a little sympathy. The last few weeks have been extraordinarily unkind to his various shifting arguments about how President Obama is making America less safe.

In late January, Thiessen went on CNN and insisted that, not only is waterboarding “not torture,” but it doesn’t involve any “extreme pain” — clumsily contradicting his other claims that jihadist prisoners require extreme pain in order to fulfill their obligation to Allah, after which they can tell interrogators about all of their jihadist plans.

Then John Kiriakou, a key CIA source for claims that waterboarding got good intelligence out of Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, retracted his previous claims, admitting that he “wasn’t there when the interrogation took place” and had only “relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.” Kiriakou said that the fact that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month “rais[ed] questions about how much useful information he actually supplied.” It also raises questions about whether Thiessen himself was being played by CIA sources seeking to create the false impression that torture works.

Then Thiessen’s argument that, by relinquishing “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Obama administration was leaving our defenders without tools to defend us was refuted by the revelation that the failed Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, had been giving up intelligence, and that this had been facilitated through the cooperation of Abdulmuttalab’s family, who had been flown in from Nigeria. According to a federal official, “the intelligence gained has been disseminated throughout the intelligence community,” and “the best way to get him to talk was working with his family.” Another official said that the family was willing to help “because they had complete trust in the US system of justice and believed that Umar Farouq would be treated fairly and appropriately.”

As it’s highly unlikely that the family would have cooperated if they suspected that Umar Farouk was in any danger of being tortured, this offered a clear example of how President Obama’s bringing U.S. counter-terrorism practices back within the rule of law is making Americans safer.

Then Thiessen’s claim that the Obama administration had irresponsibly bungled the interrogation of Abdulmuttalab and squandered precious intelligence by allowing him to receive medical treatment was tripped up by the fact — recounted in Thiessen’s own book! — that the questioning of Zubaydah (which Thiessen hails as a triumph of Bush administration intelligence-gathering) had been delayed so that he could receive medical treatment.

Then Thiessen published an article arguing that the Obama administration was killing too many terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan without capturing and interrogating them. Days later, top Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid.

Then Spencer Ackerman found this story, in the memoir of one of Thiessen’s former White House colleagues, of Thiessen pressuring a CIA analyst into giving him conclusions he wanted:

When Marc was writing remarks on the war in Iraq, he tried to browbeat a CIA analyst who was unwilling to state unequivocally that America was winning in the war on terror. “The president wants to say we’re winning!” Marc thundered. Just what we needed — another accusation that the Bush White House wanted to politicize intelligence.

…Which, to say the least, raises questions about the manner in which Thiessen conducted the CIA “interviews” upon which he bases his book’s claim that torture works.

Today in National Review, Thiessen claims triumphantly that “Declassified Documents This Week Confirm Library Tower Plot.” As Timothy Noah noted, the Library Tower plot was, for a time, a favorite talking point of the Bush administration, offered as evidence of their having successfully stopped another terrorist attack by waterboarding Al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Unfortunately, it was subsequently revealed that the Library Tower plot was actually broken up before Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was captured.

What’s got Thiessen so excited now? Declassified testimony from former CIA chief Michael Hayden:

HAYDEN: In the early planning stage of the attacks of 11 September, al-Qa’ida leaders considered an ambitious plot that called for striking both coasts of the United States with as many as ten planes in one operation. Usama bin Laden (UBL) reportedly scaled back that plan to the US East Coast only — saving the West Coast for a follow-on attack — and UBL specifically mentioned California as a target to be attacked in the weeks following 11 September, according to detainee reporting. Operatives assigned to this plot were detained in 2002 and 2003, including KSM. Evidence suggests — as I noted earlier — that Hambali was considering pursuing this plot, and his efforts were disrupted by his detention [REDACTED] and his cell of operatives.

“Evidence suggests” that “Hambali was considering pursuing this plot.” That’s it. That’s the extent of “the plot to destroy the Library Tower.” That’s the thin reed upon which Thiessen hangs his argument that torture averted a second 9/11. As former staff director of counter-terrorism for the National Security Council Roger Cressey told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, the Library Tower plot belongs in the “What if?” category — along with “What If Superman Had Worked For The Nazis?

So yes, perhaps a little sympathy for Thiessen. He may once have had a shot at a straight-cable-movie deal for his book. After the last few weeks, it’s looking more like it’ll be available exclusively on, which he’ll be able to hawk from his new perch as a Washington Post columnist.