Home / General / Sunday Book Review: How the CIA Has Made America Less Safe (A Response to Marc Thiessen)

Sunday Book Review: How the CIA Has Made America Less Safe (A Response to Marc Thiessen)


I had the tremendous pleasure of appearing on a forum with Marc Thiessen earlier this week, sponsored by the UMass Republican Club. Thiessen was there to promote his new book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack, and in his remarks he gave the abbreviated version: that had it not been for the enhanced interrogation including waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a few other high-value detainees (which by the way definitely wasn’t torture), potentially thousands of Americans would now be dead in attacks foiled only by the efforts of these patriots who set aside their moral uneasiness and, as professionals, applied the least necessary discomfort to a few detainees in order to gather vital actionable intelligence.

A number of commentators have already ripped apart his argument on the facts and methodology (Jane Mayer questions his causal narrative on empirical grounds; Matthew Alexander points out that the evidence he presents is primarily drawn from interviews with the CIA agents who did the torturing and proceeds to pick apart a number of his propositions, drawing on his extensive experience as a former military interrogator.)

In my view, the weakest part of his book is where he tries to argue that enhanced interrogation isn’t torture and doesn’t violate the Geneva Conventions.

His fallacy regarding the Geneva Conventions is that they don’t apply to GWOT detainees. But he seems to be confusing the concept of humane treatment with the concept of POW status. It’s true that the likes of KSM probably do not qualify as POWs, but this only means it is legitimate to try him for participating in hostilities. It doesn’t mean he can be tortured: Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions is understood by both human rights organizations and the US Supreme Court to apply to all detainees in all contexts.

For the torture claim, Thiessen relies on the US definition of torture in the War Crimes Act, as well as a “common-sense definition of torture” as he put it in our panel discussion: “if you are willing to try it yourself, it’s not torture.” He also argues waterboarding can’t be torture, because it if is the military would be guilty of torturing its SERE trainees.

In making these claims, Thiessen wilfully overlooks the elements of the international torture definition that pertain to the context of torture: the Convention Against Torture defines torture not as just any kind of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering” but particularly suffering

intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.

In short, SERE training doesn’t qualify under this definition; it also doesn’t quality under the War Crimes Act because trainees are not “in custody” and have a choice to quit. It’s clear that these legal instruments define torture, and prohibit it, in precisely the kinds of situations that Thiessen is talking about.

But non of these legal mistakes disprove his entire argument, because his argument doesn’t really rest on whether this is torture or not: in fact if Thiessen were to just admit we tortured, it wouldn’t alter his basic argument at all, which hinges on a causal claim and a moral claim. The causal claim is that torture, yes, torture is both effective and absolutely necessary for the protection of civilians from terror attacks. The moral claim is that, if these two causal claims are true, then engaging in limited acts of non-lethal torture are the lesser evil compared to standing by and allowing innocent civilians to absorb terror attacks.

Thiessen does a careful job developing these claims, squarely addressing liberal counter-arguments as he does so, and so for the sake of argument, I plan to set aside my general belief that torture is illegal and wrong no matter how effective it is. I’ll also set aside the broader constitutive claim that “it’s not about who they are it’s about who we are.”

Instead, I’ll address Thiessen’s wider argument on its own merits. Are Americans really safer if we cede our intelligence services the right to torture certain individuals in certain circumstances? I will argue no, but in doing so I rely on a much broader understanding of civilian protection that Thiessen is allowing for.

First, is torture effective? Readers may hate me for saying this, but this is the strongest part of Thiessen’s argument. Most social scientists and law enforcement officials know already that torture extracts confessions or information some portion of the time, which is precisely why we have rules preventing evidence gathered through those techniques from being admitted in court. An important question is how effective?

It’s hard to gather data on this today due to human subjects laws, but no such constraints existed in France a few hundred years back, and court records from that period give us some sense of how often individuals broke under the rack, crushing of joints and the like: according to a study cited by Jean Maria Arigo on p. 549 in his paper “A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists,” that number is only between 5 and 33 percent out of a population 625 prisoners.

So however you measure it, a part of the problem is the a significant proportion of the time torture does not extract the information you want. (There is a related argument that torture might lead to bad intel, though I find this less convincing because intelligence officials have methods for corroborating intelligence gleaned through torture, and moreover as Thiessen explains detainees were not generally providing the intel itself under duress; rather torture was used to gain a promise of cooperation and intelligence was extracted later.)

All that said, I think Thiessen makes a fair case that some intelligence was gathered from high-value detainees using torture, and I don’t think it helps the anti-torture argument to argue this can never be the case. But note the lynchpin in Thiessen’s argument: he must show not only that this was the case, but that the same intelligence could not have been gathered in any other way. He must also show that had it not been gathered, Americans would have died.

I think he fails in both these additional elements of his causal analysis. Indeed, in our panel discussion he ultimately admitted that 99.9999 percent of intelligence gathered from detainees required no torture. In fact, according to Thiessen, two thirds of detainees began cooperating as soon as they were shaved, put in clean clothes and sat down with interrogators for a civil discussion. Now, Thiessen would argue that it’s that thousandth of a percent of information – the strategic intelligence gathered from KSM on dry-erase boards and not the merely “tactical” information gathered from his many underlings – that prevented additional mass-casualty attacks.

But this is a very hard sell, based entirely on the correlation between the torture we committed and the absence of additional attacks. It requires us to believe that our security and intelligence services post-9/11 – vigilant, marshalled in unprecedented ways and coordinated more closely than ever with their international counterparts – have played no role in foiling such attacks.

In fact, the recent cargo-plane incident proves the opposite: the plot was foiled due to regular old human intelligence gathered by a Saudi double-agent who had infiltrated the AQAP cell in Yemen, plus a tip from a former al-Qaeda operative who defected to the Saudi authorities, plus clear lines of communication between Saudi, British and American intelligence. Thiessen is certainly right that al-Qaeda is still planning and attempting to execute attacks against American civilian targets, but anecdotally at least (and let’s be honest, anecdotal evidence is all he really presents in this book) it would seem that plots are as easily foiled through conventional methods as through torture.

This is a counter-argument to which Thiessen provides no clear answer, because he focuses only on establishing a correlation between torture and the acquisition of intelligence. He shows that certain individuals who won’t break under conventional methods will break under torture. He fails to show us that the same evidence could not have been gathered (or plots foiled) through some other means.

But forget all that. Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and assume we are convinced by his case – which, as you read it, you may actually find compelling at places, for Thiessen is a speech-writer and a master at rhetoric. What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torutre on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

The examples I gave on the panel included traffic accidents and heart disease, two modern ailments that kill people in drastically greater numbers than terrorism; we would not, however, like to give up the freedom to drive and eat what we like in order to address these threats. Nor, I argue, should we allow even a justifiable fear of death by terrorists to lead us to accept a slippery slope toward arbitrary government, because arbitrary government poses a far greater risk over all.

Thiessen’s response to this on the panel: “We’re not talking about Big Macs or NASCAR here, we’re talking about war!” To this I would answer, quoting one of my favorite IR scholars:

“War is its rules. It is the rules of warfare that give the practice meaning, that distinguish war from murder and soldiers from criminals.”

In short, Mr. Thiessen, freedom isn’t free. There are some things worth risking our lives for, and the maintenance of a torture-free system of public safety is one of those things. If, as you say (though I highly doubt this), if the price I must pay for that is the slightly higher risk I will be taken out by a terror attack, I’m willing to pay that price. And I say this not at all lightly, as an American who travels abroad with my children relatively frequently and is therefore at a greater risk of terror attack than most Americans.

By all means, do everything within the bounds of the law to protect me and my children. But don’t assume that I value my life more than my freedom. I don’t. Neither do our service-personnel who are risking their lives every day to protect those freedoms. Let’s not demean them or the sacrifices made by their families by destroying the political values they’re fighting for.

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  • I’m pretty much an absolutist when it comes to affirming that all torture is morally wrong, however I’m willing to make an exception if the person being tortured is Marc Thiessen.

    I think all reasonable people can agree on that.

  • Bighank53

    I’m surprised Thiessen didn’t bring up the value of knowing that somewhere a brown person is screaming in pain. The justification of torture is torture itself, the naked expression of power at its most basic and brutal: I can hurt you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    And of course there’s the side benefit you mentioned: while near-useless for gathering intelligence, torture does work handily for suppressing internal dissenters: trade unionists, pesky intellectuals, opposition politicians, and nosy journalists. And looking at the GOP that we currently have (and the…creative uses…that parts of the Patriot Act have found) it’s not much of a stretch to believe that this is the goal. It’s still distant, true, but ten years ago the idea wasn’t even on the horizon–thank Bush and Cheney for channeling the ghost of Pinochet.

  • Joe

    Charles Fried — one of those liberals I guess — wrote a book with his son arguing that torture is wrong, effective or not.

    But, as with most things, the utilitarian and “just wrong” argument run together. It is wrong since it violates basic principles of our system (some people don’t care too much about them — see inequality) but also because as a whole (which is how we really need to see this) it is a bad idea practically. Yes, if you torture even a true believer, at times you will get what you want.

    But, most times an alternative route will get you the information. Sometimes it leads you down the wrong end. Often it degrades you overall. And, it is sometimes leads to blowback. See what happened after Egypt tortured Muslim dissidents, e.g.

    As you suggest, even for those who don’t care about human rights, self interest should convince them to be against torture. But, many simply don’t care, and deep down despise the people involved. I have seen this as well when the subject is children dying from drone attacks. They are all the enemy, so who gives a shit?

    • Joe

      Another thing. What’s with the subtitle? It comes off as a political attack. It’s like when “pro-life” types respond to some issue with what comes off as total assholery. Given the stakes, you’d think he would try to sound somewhat neutral about the whole thing. But, no, it has to be about “Barack Obama” and he isn’t just misguided. He is “inviting” the next attack. Again, pragmatically, if you actually agreed with his case, things like that isn’t helping it.

      • James E. Powell

        That is a subtitle that is almost guaranteed to sell many many books. One thing we know about right wingers, they buy books that confirm their worst suspicions about the world.

  • Bloix

    SERE trains US military personnel who are at high risk of capture, such as pilots and special forces personnel. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Waterboarding is part of the “resistance” segment of the training, and its purpose is to teach trainees how to resist giving information or being coerced into false confessions when being tortured. SERE was instituted after the Korean War, in which several captured US pilots broke under torture and were paraded around North Korea and on television, where they repeated false confessions that had been extracted from them on the waterboard. SERE trainees are subjected to very short, controlled bouts of waterboarding in order to teach them techniques of resistance and evasion to questioning under torture.

    Thus the whole premise of SERE is that waterboarding is torture. Citing SERE as a proof that it is not torture is Orwellian logic at its best.

    • dave

      Well, no. Orwell knew him some logic, and some common sense. What you mean it, that claim is utter bullshit, and self-contradictory to boot. It displeases me to see Orwell’s legacy reduced to the content of a few Ingsoc slogans.

      • hv

        Orwellian != practiced by Orwell personally

        • dave

          Who said it did? But does invoking a tired literary cliché really add something here?

          • hv

            You said it did, when you were critical of the phrase “Orwellian logic” because it wasn’t how Orwell practiced logic.

  • For the torture claim, Thiessen relies on the US definition of torture in the War Crimes Act, as well as a “common-sense definition of torture” as he put it in our panel discussion: “if you are willing to try it yourself, it’s not torture.” He also argues waterboarding can’t be torture, because it if is the military would be guilty of torturing its SERE trainees.

    Seriously, they’re still trying to shovel this shit? They’re willing to admit in public that (among other things) they don’t understand the meaning of “consent”? I’m surprised that he didn’t start talking about fraternity hi-jinx.

    • DocAmazing

      He’s a right-winger. Their concept of “consent” begins and ends with taxes. He sees no difference between the Folsom Street Fair and Bagram Airfield, because neither involves the taking of property.

      • TT

        “Their concept of “consent” begins and ends with taxes.”

        Don’t forget the individual mandate! It’s the greatest threat to freedom since . . . Orrin Hatch, Bob Dole, Chuck Grassley, the Heritage Foundation, et al proposed it 17 years ago.

    • herr doktor bimler

      if you are willing to try it yourself, it’s not torture.

      Burning a suspect’s flesh is not torture because G. Gordon Liddy is willing to hold his hand over a candle.

      • DocAmazing

        Then let me really flog the comparison: because there are people who have consensual sex–and enjoy it–ass-raping Marc Thiessen is merely sexual contact, no more or less.

  • “War is its rules. It is the rules of warfare that give the practice meaning, that distinguish war from murder and soldiers from criminals.”

    The Finnemore quote is going right into my WWII lecture, a significant part of which centers on how certain tactics and practices were considered shocking when first perpetrated, quickly adopted by combatants on both sides, and then criminalized after the war.

  • Bill Murray

    I think a paraphrase quote from the last Beck thread sums this up, you can’t reason someone out of a position the did not arrive at by reason.

    Torturing is not any more than tertiarily about obtaining information; it’s about revenge, and power and fear (not a complete list) much more than it’s about information. Thus, liberals countering the arguments of lying hacks like Thiessen is not going to make any difference to the beliefs of almost anyone that believes in torturing. I suppose these arguments might make a difference to 0.001%, but you probably lost as many people by giving a fig leaf of respectability to the pro-torture argument by respectfully engaging it.

    • strannix

      It’s amazing sometimes how quickly liberals are willing to run away from tough questions. What exactly do you think is going to be gained from ignoring the Thiessens of the world? In case you haven’t noticed, the American public doesn’t really agree with you so much on these questions.

      Bravo to Charli for actually “engaging” these questions. It needs to be done.

      • Bill Murray

        those aren’t tough questions, because the arguments made by hacks like Thiessen aren’t made in good faith. Ridicule and mockery is the proper response. It’s amazing how many supposedly sensible centrists legitimize immoral lying hacks by engaging them

        • As an educator, it is my job not to ridicule and mock those offering arguments I disagree with, but to model reasoned position-taking. Otherwise I could hardly expect the same of my students.

          For what it’s worth, Thiessen’s book also models reasoned position-taking. He doesn’t reason from a position of particular familiarity with the law, with the wider risk data on civilian deaths worldwide, or with methods of causal inference, but he does make a good faith effort to take on liberal counter-arguments, and I respect that much more than if he built his argument around “ridicule and mockery” of the liberal left.

          I think it’s very important, in fact, to engage people like this on their own terms. I don’t expect I changed Thiessen’s mind, but I know for a fact I changed the minds of some students who came to the event generally sympathetic to his argument.

          Besides, he makes it so easy.

        • strannix

          Get a clue, man. Arguments like Thiessen’s are already legitimized by the millions of American voters who agree with him. Ridicule and mockery doesn’t get you much more than lost elections and even more torture.

  • AcademicLurker

    …sponsored by the UMass Republican Club.

    So the up-and-coming generation of Republicans is just as loathsome as the current one?


    • Not even remotely. The UMass Republican Club worked hard to create a panel with views from across the political spectrum, and Republican students in the audience listened respectfully and asked informed, thoughtful questions of speakers on both sides.

      The President of the club invited a controversial speaker and paired him with a social scientist well-versed in war law and a liberal constitutional law scholar, with the intent of provoking a lively debate in which experts questioned one another’s premises. It was a model of academic deliberation and I was both proud to participate and pleased to have been given the opportunity.

      Inviting a speaker doesn’t constitute endorsement of his views. I have many conservative students in my classes and they are as likely to criticize a position like this as to agree with it.

      What Republicans on UMass campus do want is an opportunity to hear conservative views, even views they may not personally agree with, aired and discussed in an educated setting, and I support this – it contributes to the intellectual vibrancy of an academic community.

      In my view, the UMass Republican Club does the student body as well as the cause of intellectual open-ness a service by creating opportunities for dialogue like this one.

      • asdfsdf

        They really do sound like credits to their University. How influential are they vs. the inevitable crazy fringe groups? I know, down here at PSU we have, off the top of my head, the College Republicans, the College Libertarians, the Ayn Rand Society, the Young Americans for Freedom (decided to hold an angry rally when VP Biden gave a speech here and reportedly go around yelling at Muslims about the “ground zero mosque”) and the PSU Objectivist Society (saw fliers for a poster where they claimed that oil was a renewable resource.)

        Do you actually have a sane political climate up there, where the loudest and most publicly known groups are actually thoughtful, reasonable people? If so, I envy you.

  • One issue that torture fetishists like Thiessen never seem to consider is by what moral authority we will be able to criticize torture when performed on our soldiers when we perform it on our enemies.

    Charli, have you ever read Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain?

    • redrob

      Oh! Oh! This one is easy.

      The moral authority will be “As Tocqueville said ‘America is great because America is good…,’ therefore, nothing done by Americans or in the name of America can be bad. QED.”

      • While not disagreeing with your point, this is the sort of argument that only convinces those who make it.

        My comment is precisely why the military brass and the armchair warriors are miles apart on this issue.

        • redrob

          That “argument” may convince only those who make it, but it appeals to a dishearteningly large part of the population as a whole.

          Your second point may be true, but it is irrelevant to the torture fetishists because they know that war is not won by namby-pamby notions of professionalism or morality, but by commitment, determination, and a strength of will that is “perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure” (to quote Col. Kurtz). Because of this, if we “win” the GWOT, it will be because we had the will to do anything that was needed — all of it justified by our pure hearts — while a loss will be chalked up to a failure of will, including that of the military brass who are “perfumed princes” rather than real warriors like “The Troops”.

        • redrob

          By the way, I am in agreement with you that the fetishists and the officer corps are largely on completely different pages concerning this. I just don’t think that matters to people like Thiessen.

          • Scott Lemieux

            I believe Chris Muir has solved this problem: if you’re not a moral relativist, you’re a Kantian nihilist. It’s all very clear.

            • Kurzleg

              Nihilist? Say what you want about the tenets…

            • redrob

              I know you are but what am I?

  • wengler

    Considering the CIA torture regime was based on SERE, and SERE was based on resisting torture by Communist regimes, I am fairly confident in saying that we are all Soviets now.

    • Soviets? An absurd analogy. I’d continue this debate, but I’m off to get my balls groped by the TSA.

    • Actually, given that it came about after the Korean War, I’m inclined to believe we’re all Maoists.

  • Stag Party Palin

    I would like to hear better examples than heart disease and traffic accidents to support the ‘arbitrary government’ argument. You seem to be saying that a government that tortures cannot prevent heart disease. Nu? “Slippery slope” won’t win any debates either, let alone the people we want to reach.

    • I would be pleased to answer your question if I could understand what you are asking. Please elaborate.

      • Stag Party Palin

        Your argument that “civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture” is a hard sell. My point is that you’re not going to sell it by using traffic accidents and heart disease. The other side can merely say, let’s torture people AND let people have the freedom to drive and eat.

        I suppose I’m asking you to make a persuasive logical argument to people who don’t respond to logic. Oh well.

  • herr doktor bimler

    Is Thiessen in favour of a belated pardon for those Japanese soldiers who were executed for water-boarding Americans?

    • DocAmazing

      After all, the Rape of Nanking wasn’t rape rape…

  • Anonymous

    He shows that certain individuals who won’t break under conventional methods will break under torture.

    I’m not convinced here. I do not believe we *ever* made a serious effort to interrogate KSM, for instance, as opposed to torturing him. Once someone’s been tortured, it’s difficult at best to establish the kind of rapport-building necessary to effective interrogation. And my god, apparently we threatened to rape and kill his children too.

    And god knows what kinds of questions we were asking KSM. Serious questions about imminent threats? Or trying to prove Iraq was aiding al-Qaeda? His laundry-list confession suggests we asked about everything that was on *our* minds, and he confessed to most of it.

    “Breaking” someone in torture gets dubious intel — the more imminent the peril, the greater the incentive to lie and misdirect the torturer. It doesn’t last — hence the 153 sessions KSM was waterboarded. Bukharin kept “confessing” to Trotskyite nonsense after a few days in the “conveyor,” and then taking it back, and they had to start over again.

    The ONLY thing torture is PROVEN effective at is obtaining false confessions. It’s very good at that, tho not foolproof, as the study Carpenter cites has noted. (Google Darius Rejali’s “5 Myths About Torture” op-ed and he cites the same thing.) But for getting someone talking, not about your fears and fantasies, but about what HE knows that YOU don’t? Worthless.

    • Anderson

      Sorry, didn’t mean to post that comment anon.

    • Joe

      It’s a question of what “worthless” means. If thieves came into my home and started to crush by fingers, yes, I would tell them something that I would otherwise not tell.

      As 1984 suggests, this very well might include something that would harm someone close to me. As noted, there are alternatives and along with the information, you will get bad intel and blowback.

      But, “worthless”?

      • dave

        Well, if the thieves KNOW you’ve got a safe full of cash, and they want the combination, all you’ve got to do is decide how many fingers you want to lose before you tell them. I rather think the point is, what if the thieves only THINK you’ve got a safe full of cash, but you haven’t? Then nothing you can scream, gibber or moan will save any of your fingers. Or your toes, or your penis, or your daughter’s life, etc etc etc…

        • Joe

          Right. Sometimes it’s useful under that rubric. On some level.

  • DCA

    The best evidence for the “bad intel” claim remains, I think, the European witch-craze, the geograph of which correlates very precisely with where torture was used as a fact-finding tool. Marry this with the opportunity cost of chasing down false leads and I think you can make a purely utilitarian case. A question for proponents would be, “How do you know that torture works (in the sense of giving accurate informatiion not just getting a confession)?” I suspect that most people know this, not from any acquaintance with actual evidence, but only because they’ve seen it so many times in the movies and on TV, where it performs the function of compressing the time-to-confession.

    • ajay

      DCA: be careful, though; a non-trivial percentage of US voters who back torture also believe in witchcraft, and so your argument wouldn’t work on them. They would simply respond that some or all of the women who confessed to witchcraft after torture were actually witches.

    • Every decent examination of historical torture I’m familiar with arrived at similar conclusions. Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers, for example, looks at the ‘investigation’ of a witch scare in 18th century China, and the first chapters detail how torture produces false confessions, false recantations, and false evidence against others; the rest of the book involves the realization on the part of the imperial bureaucracy just how bad torture-obtained information is (which does not, mind you, result in abandoning the practice, just this prosecution).

  • I’m actually shocked by the reasoning here. I mean, Thiessen is a moral monster and we already knew that. But the argument that something cannot be torture if anyone (ever, anywhere) willingly consented to it is bizarre. It has a sort of sick logic, though – it’s an argument that actually only requires denial to be logically valid on its own terms.

    It does imply that he should personally submit to the waterboard, though, in order to demonstrate its non-tortuousness by his consent. Has he thought this through?

    • Holden Pattern

      Actually, it suggests that he should be kidnapped and waterboarded until whoever kidnaps him is satisfied with the results. Consent is irrelevant.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    I think the main argument against the results of torturous interrogations is one based on the uncertainty of the results.

    Can torture lead to actionable intelligence? Sure.

    Is it every bit as likely to lead to the victim saying whatever he thinks will stop the torment? Sure.

    Query: how do you tell the difference when the information being solicited is about a clandestine organization about which you know very little in general and next to nothing in particular?

    This is the crux of the problem and where Theissen has made his main mistake. If you were able to corroborate the results of such an interrogation from outside sources, you wouldn’t need the torturous interrogation in the first place. If you can’t, then you will never be able to tell when the victims are telling you the truth. The whole point of a skilled interrogation is to get outside information and use it – and trust – to break down resistance. That’s both the trouble with and the cause of our use of torture: we tortured because we couldn’t get the reliable intelligence we needed to make a real interrogation work and we tortured to get it. There’s simply no way to tell if what we got was reliable or not.

    This isn’t me talking, btw; it’s Rejali. But the contempt that the people who knew what they were doing for the “Tiger Team” amateurs is telling on this.

  • Joe

    I checked Amazon and the book has an inside the book preview. The first section quotes a discussion he had with “JD” and said person noted that KSM was ‘superhuman’ in resisting questioning (KSM = supervillian) and that they would not be able to get anything w/o using such techniques.

    Both are b.s. statements.

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