Counterfactual: Marc Thiessen, The Torture Apologist A Curious History of the C.I.A.’s Secret Interrogation Program

Tellingly, Thiessen does not address the many false confessions given by detainees under torturous pressure, some of which have led the U.S. tragically astray. Nowhere in this book, for instance, does the name Ibn Sheikh al-Libi appear. In 2002, the C.I.A., under an expanded policy of extraordinary rendition, turned Libi over to Egypt to be brutalized. Under duress, Libi falsely linked Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s alleged biochemical-weapons program, in Iraq. In February, 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an influential speech in which he made the case for going to war against Iraq and prominently cited this evidence.

Thiessen never questions the wisdom of relying on C.I.A. officials to assess the legality and effectiveness of their own controversial program. Yet many people at the agency aren’t just worried about the judgment of history; they’re worried about facing prosecution. As a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility notes, the agency has a “demonstrated interest in shielding its interrogators from legal jeopardy.”

“Courting Disaster” downplays the C.I.A.’s brutality under the Bush Administration to the point of falsification. Thiessen argues that “the C.I.A. interrogation program did not inflict torture by any reasonable standard,” and that there was “only one single case” in which “inhumane” techniques were used. That case, he writes, involved the detainee Abd al-Rahim Nashiri, whom a C.I.A. interrogator threatened with a handgun to the head, and with an electric drill. He claims that no detainee “deaths in custody took place in the C.I.A. interrogation program,” failing to mention the case of a detainee who was left to freeze to death at a C.I.A.-run prison in Afghanistan. Referring to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Thiessen writes that “what happened in those photos had nothing to do with C.I.A. interrogations, military interrogations, or interrogations of any sort.” The statement is hard to square with the infamous photograph of Manadel al-Jamadi; his body was placed on ice after he died of asphyxiation during a C.I.A. interrogation at the prison. The homicide became so notorious that the C.I.A.’s inspector general, John Helgerson, forwarded the case to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution. Thiessen simply ignores the incident.

Thiessen also categorically states, “The well-documented fact is there was no torture at Guantánamo.” One person who would disagree with this remark is Susan Crawford, the conservative Republican jurist whom Bush appointed to serve as the top “convening authority” on military commissions at Guantánamo. Last year, she told Bob Woodward, of the Washington Post, that there was at least one Guantánamo detainee whose prosecution she couldn’t allow because his abuse “met the legal definition of torture.”

Perhaps the most outlandish falsehood in “Courting Disaster” is Thiessen’s portrayal of Obama and the Democrats as the sole opponents of brutal interrogation tactics. Thiessen presents the termination of the C.I.A. program as a renegade action by President Obama, who has “eliminated our nation’s most important tool to prevent terrorists from striking America.” Yet Thiessen knows that waterboarding and other human-rights abuses, such as dispatching prisoners into secret indefinite detention, were abandoned by the Bush Administration: he wrote the very speech announcing, in 2006, that the Administration was suspending their use.

In fact, the C.I.A.’s descent into torture was ended by an outpouring of opposition from critics inside and outside the Administration-including officials within the C.I.A., who registered their concerns with Helgerson. In 2004, Helgerson wrote a pointed confidential report questioning the legality, the medical safety, and the humaneness of the program, which spurred conservative, Bush-appointed lawyers in the Justice Department to withdraw arguments that had been made to justify the program. F.B.I. officials and military leaders, including the four-star General John Vessey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, turned against the Bush Administration interrogation program. So did Senator John McCain; he later described waterboarding as torture. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that American officials had to treat Al Qaeda suspects humanely, or face charges of war crimes.

Thiessen’s effort to rewrite the history of the C.I.A.’s interrogation program comes not long after a Presidential race in which both the Republican and the Democratic nominees agreed that state-sponsored cruelty had damaged and dishonored America. The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation. By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it. (Posted by (

Jane Mayer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1995. Based in Washington, D.C., she writes about politics for the magazine, and has been covering the war on terror.

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