Friday, September 14, 2012

Courting Disaster by Marc Thiessen

Marc Thiessen, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, uses his unprecedented access to sensitive intelligence information and exhaustive interviews with former intelligence personnel to draw a picture for us of the true story of how "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used to ferret out information about planned terrorist attacks, and made us safer in the long haul. He was working in the administration when the controversy over some of these techniques, especially waterboarding, erupted into the public consciousness in 2006.

Of course, some people will say that this book is some sort of partisan argument, justifying the unjustifiable actions of the Bush administration in their effort to combat the terrorist threat represented by Al Quaeda. Which brings us to the curious question faced by any serious student of current events and/or history - what sources can you really trust. I encountered a similar situation recently when I saw that a new study was published by Stanford University researchers last week proving that organically grown vegetables and produce are no more nutritious or safe for consumption than those grown by modern "factory farming" methods. Friends whose opinions I generally respect expressed outrage that this study was somehow biased, and that its results were flawed. They have their trusted sources, while I have mine (as well as opinions of my own on the subject).

Thiessen has some very thorough appendices at the back of the book from declassified documents, proving some of his assertions - heavily redacted, of course. I think that sometimes government censors get a little carried away with the black marker on these things - just justifying their possession of the power to remove things, granted them by the government. It reminds me a bit of the Iran Contra hearings, when Ollie North zinged congressional interrogators who were demanding his reason for shredding documents, "I didn't just go out to the office supply and buy a shredder, the government provided it for me; I was expected to shred those documents, it was my job." (paraphrased from memory)

So, you can take Thiessen with a grain of salt, or not at all, I suppose. In fact, most of those who disagree with his conclusions will probably never read his book in the first place.

Some of his claims about information from EIT:
  • Led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, sent to America to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in Los Angeles
  • Led to the capture of a cell of Southeast Asian terrorists who planned to hijack a jet and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles
  • Led to the capture of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who planned to hijack airplanes in Europe and crash them at Heathrow Airport and buildings in downtown London
  • Led to the capture of a pair of terrorists who were planning to blow up the U.S. consulate and Western residences in Karachi, Pakistan
  • Led to the disruption of a plot to blow up the U.S. Marine Camp in Djibouti
  • Helped break up an Al Qaeda cell developing anthrax for terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Interestingly to me, as I remember some of these discussions:

"His (Abd al-Hahdi) capture - on his way to Iraq on bin Laden's orders - was a rebuke to those who tried to arugue that al Qaeda in Iraq was completely independent of al Qaeda's central leadership."

"Abd al-Hahdi...was a former member of Saddam Hussein's military, who had joined al Qaeda in the 1990s and risen to become a senior bin Laden advisor...served as one of al Qaeda's top paramilitary commanders in Afghanistan...served as a member of al Qaeda's ruling Shura council."

People who believed that Iraq was a distraction from the War on Terror may have been seriously mistaken.

As to the claim that EIT didn't work, that "torture" never extracts useful information, as those being interrogated will tell the interrogator whatever they think they want to hear:

"(CIA Inspector General Mike) Hayden says, 'Most of the people who oppose the techniques want to be able to say, 'I don't want my nation doing this,' which is a purely honorable positions, and 'they didn't work anyway.' That back half of the sentence isn't true."

The enhanced interrogation techniques are thoroughly described in this book, and my gut feeling is that the only one that marginally rises to the level of torture is waterboarding. However, that process was done in CIA facilities under strict medical supervision so as not to cause any lasting harm, and was stopped far short of actually inflicting permanent physical harm. None of the other techniques, such as "walling" and sleep deprivation, and others are any more severe than fraternity hazing rituals, which are performed under far less controlled circumstances by sadistic amateurs, in my opinion.

There's a good section on the controversy surrounding trying detainees in the War on Terror in civilian courts, and one thing to note is that if these detainees were tried in public, al Qaeda leadership would immediately know that they had been captured, and adjust their plans, procedures and security precautions accordingly.

"One high-ranking CIA official I spoke with told me this is exactly what happened with one of the last high value detainees held in the CIA program. According to this official, the al Qaeda leadership 'literally did not know for three months that he was gone. And so therefore, they plan operations because they thought they were still secure, not know that at that very moment [this terrrorist] was spilling his guts on what those operations were, which did allow us to stop plots or follow plots because the bad guys back home didn't know he was caught.'"

According to Thiessen as well "the reality is that enhanced interrogation techniques were used 'rarely.' Of the tens of thousands of individuals captured in the war on terror, only about thirty terrorists were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques of any kind, and just three were subjected to waterboarding."

Of course, I saw a news article appear yesterday saying that "more detainees were waterboarded than our government has revealed" source Human Rights Watch. Again, what sources should we trust? Human Rights Watch does some good work, but their agenda and funding are politically driven. Some interesting facts are also detailed in this book about the lawyers doing pro bono work defending detainees - these law firms top partners have filled the ranks of some of the most senior positions in the Obama administration's Department of Justice, including Eric Holder's law firm. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it?

I found it a very interesting read. You might, too.

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