Over at The Corner, Marc Thiessen continues his attack on Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer who panned his book, Courting Disaster, in a scathing review that pointed out its numerous inaccurate passages. Mr. Thiessen responded to that review here. I argued that his response is unfair to Ms. Mayer.
Before I address the errors in his latest post, I want to step back for a minute and explain to Mr. Thiessen something about the larger controversy. The core of his argument, in his book Courting Disaster, and in the present exchange, is that the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation tactics,” — a euphemism that encompasses techniques I and many others find to be illegal torture — were indispensable to national security. As Mr. Thiessen puts it in his latest post:
I would certainly welcome it if Mayer, Friedersdorf, and all the other critics would finally come out and admit publicly that enhanced interrogations did work — that lives were saved thanks to the information the CIA program produced.
Despite his assertions, Mr. Thiessen hasn’t proved this to be so, and I want to explain why. Implicit in his work is the assumption that the CIA interrogation program “worked” so long as it can be shown that a detainee subjected to these techniques provided intelligence that saved American lives. This is a flawed metric.
One problem is that in any individual case, it is impossible to determine whether an approach other than “enhanced interrogation” could have elicited the same intelligence, or even better intelligence, something that Mr. Thiessen himself admits.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, a case where a detainee who was water-boarded gave up information that he would’ve otherwise withheld. In this circumstance, Mr. Thiessen would claim vindication, point to the American lives saved by the information, and assert it as proof that the CIA’s entire “enhanced interrogation” program “works.”
What is myopic about that assumption, and the whole body of Mr. Thiessen’s writerly output, is that overall efficacy, overall impact on American lives, and overall impact in the War on Terrorism is the actual metric that determines whether or not an interrogation program “works.”
Were I to implement an interrogation program where the CIA questioners spoke only Chinese, it might well save American lives in a single instance, when the particular detainee hails from Beijing, whereas the failure to elicit information from every other detainee would mean that, on the whole, the strategy didn’t work. Similarly, it may be the case that in a single instance, “enhanced interrogation techniques” elicited useful information, even information that saved American lives, but that other consequences of the program make clear that it was an overall failure.
What kinds of “other consequences”? They’ve been discussed endlessly in the debate over detainee treatment, but to quickly rehash the relevant arguments, some of which I find persuasive, and all of which I find plausible: A) Seeing as how the detainees are basically being tortured, “enhanced interrogation” produces false leads from people who just want the pain to stop — and having to track down these false leads is an inefficient waste of resources that distracts anti-terrorism forces, perhaps costing American lives. B) Alternative interrogation tactics that don’t involve torture are simply more effective, either because interrogators have a lot more experience implementing them, or because of the way that the average human being reacts to different methods. Numerous experienced interrogation experts have made this claim. C) The FBI and some talented interrogators are uncomfortable with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As a result, using them entails the employment of marginally less talented interrogators in the short term, and in the long term affects the number of people who are even willing to train as interrogators. D) The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” makes some countries less likely or entirely unwilling to give us custody of suspects in the War on Terrorism. E) The fact that we use horrific techniques like waterboarding serves as a recruiting tool for organizations like Al Qaeda, and undermines moral authority that is crucial to winning our wars abroad — General Petraeus makes this latter argument. F) A reputation for the use of “enhanced interrogation” makes the enemy less likely to surrender, and makes anti-terrorist Muslims less likely than they’d otherwise be to report intelligence about other people to American forces, especially when they are unsure of someone’s guilt.
Given all these factors, it is wrongheaded, simplistic and indefensible to prattle on about the CIA interrogation program having been proven to work based solely on the argument that some useful information has been gleaned. I am sure there are also other arguments about the strategic benefit of torture, as opposed to its tactical efficacy in a given situation. Suffice it to say that Mr. Thiessen doesn’t have a persuasive rebuttal to these arguments.
Incidentally, in his post at The Corner, Mr. Thiessen continues to conflate a tactical success in a single enhanced interrogations with the CIA program “working.” He writes:
Friedersdorf goes on to charge that I incorrectly claim Admiral Blair, Leon Panetta, and John Brennan all supported the CIA program. This is not what I said. Their opposition is well documented in my book, and should be obvious to any sentient reader (if they supported the CIA program they would not have shut it down). What I do is quote them admitting that the program worked.
In fact, I never charge that Mr. Thiessen makes incorrect claims about these men supporting the CIA program — it’s far sneakier than that. What I wrote is that “he purports to defend his own position about enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, by selectively quoting people who turn out to argue that either enhanced interrogation generally, or waterboarding in particular, shouldn’t be used and do more harm than good. That he neglects to mention their words when they are contrary to his own arguments is telling.” I encourage readers to go here and judge for yourselves if you feel misled by the way that Mr. Thiessen quotes his sources. Perhaps he didn’t intend to be misleading, and it is his curious definition of the word “work” that is actually getting in the way here. This is most evident in the case of General Blair, so let’s look at his whole quote again:
“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”
Mr. Thiessen persists in summarizing the views of a man who says these techniques do overall damage to our interests — that their costs “far outweigh their benefits” — by saying that he believes these techniques “work” (and when he quotes the man he leaves out the second sentence entirely!).
That is my well founded objection.
So Mr. Thiessen persists in acting as though whether “enhanced interrogation” works is a matter of proving that in some individual instances information was elicited that saved American lives. Before we granted that possibility for the sake of argument. Now let’s grapple with that narrow matter.
Even proving that American lives would’ve been lost but for these techniques — a difficult thing to demonstrate — wouldn’t salvage Mr. Thiessen’s project, given other objections just listed. But it is relevant to the dispute with Ms. Mayer that I’ve weighed in on.
Mr. Thiessen writes:
Over at True/Slant, Conor Friedersdorf comes to Jane Mayer’s defense, claiming Mayer didn’t really mean that the CIA interrogations “yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit” because — aha! — I left out that she attributed this claim to “many critics.” Please. Asserting that “many critics” say CIA interrogations yielded no intelligence is like saying “many critics say you beat your wife.” It’s disingenuous to cite these many (unnamed) critics and say — oh, but of course, Mayer did not mean she agreed with them. Of course she did. The whole purpose of her review was to rebut the arguments I present in Courting Disaster that the CIA program produced invaluable intelligence.
Even in focusing on a line at the beginning of Ms. Mayer’s piece that was meant to summarize the state of debate, Mr. Thiessen is in the wrong, especially in asserting that these critics are “unnamed.” Ms. Mayer’s review begins by summarizing the Courting Disaster assertion that if not for the CIA interrogation program, a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights would’ve succeeded. She writes:
His account of the foiled Heathrow plot, for example, is “completely and utterly wrong,” according to Peter Clarke, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch in 2006. “The deduction that what was being planned was an attack against airliners was entirely based upon intelligence gathered in the U.K.,” Clarke said, adding that Thiessen’s “version of events is simply not recognized by those who were intimately involved in the airlines investigation in 2006.” Nor did Scotland Yard need to be told about the perils of terrorists using liquid explosives. The bombers who attacked London’s public-transportation system in 2005, Clarke pointed out, “used exactly the same materials.”
Is Peter Clarke not a named critic who asserts that CIA interrogations yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit?
Another named critic in the piece:
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert who is writing a history of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror,” told me that the Heathrow plot “was disrupted by a combination of British intelligence, Pakistani intelligence, and Scotland Yard.” He noted that authorities in London had “literally wired the suspects’ bomb factory for sound and video.” It was “a classic law-enforcement and intelligence success,” Bergen said, and “had nothing to do with waterboarding or with Guantánamo detainees.”
Later in Ms. Mayer’s piece:
Thiessen’s impulse, however, is to credit C.I.A. interrogators at every turn. He portrays the agency’s coercive handling, in 2002, of Abu Zubaydah—he was subjected to beatings, sexual humiliation, temperature extremes, and waterboarding, among other techniques—as another coup that saved American lives. Information given by Zubaydah, Thiessen writes, led to the arrest, two months later, in Chicago, of Jose Padilla, the American-born Al Qaeda recruit. But Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent, has testified before Congress that he elicited Padilla’s identity from Zubaydah in April, 2002—months before the C.I.A. began using its most controversial methods. Soufan, speaking to Newsweek, said of Zubaydah’s treatment, “We didn’t have to do any of this.”
Is Ali Soufan not a named critic?
And still later, Ms. Mayer writes:
Thiessen, citing the classified evidence that he was privileged to see, claims that opponents of brutal interrogations can’t appreciate their efficacy. “The assessment of virtually everyone who examined the classified evidence,” he writes, is that the C.I.A.’s methods were justified. In fact, many independent experts who have top security clearances, and who have had access to the C.I.A.’s records, have denounced the agency’s tactics. Among the critics are Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., and four chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Last year, President Obama asked Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, to give a classified briefing on the program to three intelligence experts: Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska; Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel to the C.I.A.; and David Boren, the retired Democratic senator from Oklahoma. The three men were left unswayed. Boren has said that, after the briefing, he “wanted to take a bath.” In an e-mail to me, he wrote, “I left the briefing by General Hayden completely unconvinced that the use of torture is an effective means of interrogation. . . . Those who are being tortured will say anything.”
Is David Boren not a named critic?
I excerpt at such length because it is the only way to show how careless and misleading is Mr. Thiessen’s assertion.
“It’s disingenuous to cite these many (unnamed) critics and say — oh, but of course, Mayer did not mean she agreed with them,” he writes. “Of course she did.”
As for the question of whether or not Ms. Mayer agrees with them, I think it is fair to say that overall she does not think there is compelling evidence that the CIA’s interrogation program “works,” but that neither does she “declare categorically” that they ““yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit” because a reporter as careful as she is, fact-checked by the New Yorker staff, doesn’t make unnecessarily strong categorical declarations — rather, she reports on strong critiques, and at the beginning of an article in which they’re presented she writes that the book “offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.”
It is the inclusion of these numerous named critics, saying just that in relation to various examples, that make her summary early in the article a fair one– and it is telling that Mr. Thiessen obsesses on that line, what he inaccurately calls Ms. Mayer’s assertion, when the critiques most devastating to his book are elsewhere. Put another way, the journalistic hedgded assertions of Jane Mayer are nevertheless plenty powerful enough to devastate Courting Disaster.