By JANE MAYER
CommonDreams.org/The New Yorker
Posted by Bulatlat.com
On September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of Al Qaeda’s attacks on America, another devastating terrorist plot was meant to unfold. Radical Islamists had set in motion a conspiracy to hijack seven passenger planes departing from Heathrow Airport, in London, and blow them up in midair. “Courting Disaster” (Regnery; $29.95), by Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter in the Bush Administration, begins by imagining the horror that would have resulted had the plot succeeded. He conjures fifteen hundred dead airline passengers, televised “images of debris floating in the ocean,” and gleeful jihadis issuing fresh threats: “We will rain upon you such terror and destruction that you will never know peace.”
The plot, of course, was thwarted-an outcome that has been credited to smart detective work. But Thiessen writes that there is a more important reason that his dreadful scenario never came to pass: the Central Intelligence Agency provided the United Kingdom with pivotal intelligence, using “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Bush Administration. According to Thiessen, British authorities were given crucial assistance by a detainee at Guantánamo Bay who spoke of “plans for the use of liquid explosive,” which can easily be made with products bought at beauty shops. Thiessen also claims that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the primary architect of the 9/11 attacks, divulged key intelligence after being waterboarded by the C.I.A. a hundred and eighty-three times. Mohammed spoke about a 1995 plot, based in the Philippines, to blow up planes with liquid explosives. Thiessen writes that, in early 2006, “an observant C.I.A. officer” informed “skeptical” British authorities that radicals under surveillance in England appeared to be pursuing a similar scheme.
Thiessen’s book, whose subtitle is “How the C.I.A. Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack,” offers a relentless defense of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, which, according to many critics, sanctioned torture and yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit. In addition, Thiessen attacks the Obama Administration for having banned techniques such as waterboarding. “Americans could die as a result,” he writes.
Yet Thiessen is better at conveying fear than at relaying the facts. 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.”
Thiessen’s claim about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed looks equally shaky. The Bush interrogation program hardly discovered the Philippine airlines plot: in 1995, police in Manila stopped it from proceeding and, later, confiscated a computer filled with incriminating details. By 2003, when Mohammed was detained, hundreds of news reports about the plot had been published. If Mohammed provided the C.I.A. with critical new clues-details unknown to the Philippine police, or anyone else-Thiessen doesn’t supply the evidence.
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.”
“Courting Disaster” was published soon after a terrorism scare-the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an alleged affiliate of Al Qaeda, to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day-and the book has attracted a wide readership, becoming a Times best-seller. Recently, Thiessen was hired by the Washington Post as an online columnist. Neither a journalist nor a terrorism expert, he got his start as a publicist for conservative politicians, among them Jesse Helms, the late Republican senator from North Carolina. After Bush’s election in 2000, he began writing speeches for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and, eventually, became a speechwriter in the Bush White House.
In his book, Thiessen explains that he got a rare glimpse of the C.I.A.’s secret interrogation program when, in 2006, he helped write a speech for President George W. Bush that acknowledged the program’s existence and offered a spirited defense of it. “This program has given us information that has saved innocent lives,” Bush declared. (My own history of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, “The Dark Side,” mentions this speech, and says that it supplanted a different version, prepared by Administration officials who disapproved of the interrogation program; Thiessen, in his book, disputes my reporting, insisting that although “many edits” were suggested by critics of abusive tactics, there was “no rival draft.”) In an effort to bolster the President’s speech, the C.I.A. arranged for Thiessen to see classified documents, and invited him to meet agency interrogators. He says that he emerged convinced of the program’s merit. While researching his book, he was granted extensive interviews with several of the program’s key architects and implementers, including Vice-President Dick Cheney; Michael McConnell, the former director of national intelligence; and Michael V. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director. The book, whose cover features a blurb from Cheney, has become the unofficial Bible of torture apologists.