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Thiessen Laments Dead Terrorists Can't Be Tortured

February 9, 2010

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, President Bush famously announced his plans for Osama Bin Laden, "There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'" Bush, of course, failed to deliver Bin Laden in either state. But now that President Obama is killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members in the Pakistani safe haven his predecessor failed to dismantle, former chief Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen worries that "dead terrorists tell no tales." Apparently, the waterboarding enthusiast Thiessen frets the United States is killing its enemies before getting a chance to torture them first.
Taking a break from his ongoing debate with Matthew Yglesias over the merits of the Spanish Inquisition, Thiessen took to the pages of Foreign Policy to offer among the most comically disingenuous critiques thus far of the Obama administration's terror-fighting policies. After rhetorically asking "Is Barack Obama killing too many bad guys before the U.S. can interrogate them," Thiessen provides the expected answer:

President Barack Obama's escalation of drone strikes is one area in the counterterrorism fight where he has earned plaudits from even his most vocal critics on the right. Hold the applause. Obama's escalation of the "Predator War" comes at the very same time he has eliminated the CIA's capability to capture senior terrorist leaders alive and interrogate them for information on new attacks. The Predator has become for President Obama what the cruise missile was to President Bill Clinton -- an easy way to appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists, when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.

As he promised during the 2008 presidential race (to much criticism from the McCain campaign), President Obama has significantly ratcheted up the use of Predator drone strikes against Al Qaeda targets in the border areas of Pakistan. While the backlash from civilian casualties make clear the policy is not without its risks, Obama's aggressive posture has decimated the Al Qaeda's leadership ranks. And as the New York Times reported in December, it's a campaign supported not by both parties in Congress, but by the CIA itself:

The White House has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.'s drone program in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, officials said this week, to parallel the president's decision, announced Tuesday, to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan...
In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, C.I.A. officials were not eager to embrace killing terrorists from afar with video-game controls, said one former intelligence official. "There was also a lot of reluctance at Langley to get into a lethal program like this," the official said. But officers grew comfortable with the program as they checked off their hit list more than a dozen notorious figures, including Abu Khabab al-Masri, a Qaeda expert on explosives; Rashid Rauf, accused of being the planner of the 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot; and Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Glossing over those successes in eradicating key Al Qaeda figures in their remote Pakistani safe haven, Thiessen instead intentionally confuses the issue by citing those captured in cities the U.S. could never and would never strike from the air:

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA worked with Pakistani and other intelligence services to hunt down senior terrorist leaders and take them in for interrogation. Among those captured were men like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Riduan Isamuddin (aka "Hambali"), Bashir bin Lap, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and others...
When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was located in 2003, the United States did not send a Predator to kill him. It captured him alive and got him to give up the details of the plots he had set in motion. That decision saved thousands of lives. The fact that Obama's administration no longer does this when it locates senior terrorist leaders today means the president is voluntarily sacrificing intelligence that could protect the American people -- and that the U.S. homeland is at greater risk of a terrorist attack.

Of course, the only thing President Obama is "voluntarily sacrificing" is the opportunity to torture terror detainees using waterboarding and other so-called "enhanced nterrogation techniques." As he's made clear with his repeated embrace of those harsh and illegal measures, their loss is what Marc Thiessen really laments. As he put it last April:

"What will the administration do now that it has shared the limits of our interrogation techniques with the enemy? President Obama's decision to release these documents is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible acts ever by an American president during a time of war -- and Americans may die as a result."

But in his Foreign Policy piece, Thiessen assures readers it's really all about the innocent women and children:

Obama's drone campaign is costing the United States vital intelligence, and it has also exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy. The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the "the false choice between our security and our ideals." Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target -- individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?

And so it goes. Marc Thiessen feigns concern that President Obama is killing too many terrorists, denying American interrogators the opportunity to practice their art upon them. As Matthew Yglesias of ThinkProgress concluded:

"If Marc Thiessen doesn't want to be compared to the Spanish Inquisition, he should stop advocating torture techniques used in the Spanish Inquisition."

2 comments on “Thiessen Laments Dead Terrorists Can't Be Tortured”

  1. Thiessen right off the bat in this interview on CNN goes off the rails about the valuable info gathered vis-à-vis KSM and others, which was gleaned from Abu Zubaydah WITHOUT any torture techniques by former FBI interrogator, Mr. Ali Soufan.
    Those darn pesky facts always bother the GOP – who play loose with the facts as they pander to “Rightwingers.” That is why we need to keep the spotlight of the truth and facts turned on them ... they can't stand the heat.
    — Dan Francis (Watertown, NY): Retired Marine Corps infantry officer (VN era) and former Interrogator (over 10 years) with experience and service all over the world ...

  2. The last thing a sadist wants is for his object to die; his sense of power and, in the perverse extreme, sexual satisfaction, are derived from his dominance and infliction of pain. He needs a live victim; death spoils the game. Thiessen, among others in the last regime, may need counseling.
    I seriously question whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" were ever truly about getting more timely, actionable, or useful information. Post factum rationalizations for abhorrent behavior are a dime a dozen -- stroll through any maximum security penitentiary and ask around.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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