In his recent op-ed for the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen declared the "torture debate" over and his side, not surprisingly, the winner. He cites, to support his claim, a Washington Post poll conducted after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture. The poll found that a majority of Americans support the CIA's interrogation program. Fifty-eight percent also said that torture could be "often" or "sometimes" justified.
All of this is good news for Thiessen. For most of the Bush administration, more Americans opposed torture than supported it, according to Paul Gronke, Darius Rejali and Peter Miller's analysis of public opinion polling data. But since Obama's inauguration, the "torture debate" has divided along partisan lines and support for torture has trended upward.
To have declared victory on the strength of one, or a few, or a trend in public opinion polls is revealing. For Thiessen, the moral and legal issues surrounding torture are reducible to politics. Truth, for Thiessen, is subordinate to rhetoric; to convince others of your arguments is to win, no matter the credibility of your claims. In this way, Thiessen has rigged the game. He is a gifted writer and rhetorician. He was a speechwriter for former-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, before being promoted to this position for George W. Bush. He penned Bush's 2006 speech acknowledging the CIA's interrogation program. Mark Danner, one of the country's leading writers on torture, called this Bush's most important speech, "perhaps the only 'historic' speech he gave."
But no matter his rhetorical gifts, Thiessen faces a problem when defending the CIA's interrogation program: It involved brutal, amateurish and ineffectual cruelty. This is why public opinion is so valuable; it need not be tethered to facts. And this is why Thiessen has never really defended the CIA's interrogation program in an intellectually honest way. His defenses consistently misrepresent waterboarding as a controlled and restrained practice, "enhanced interrogation" rather than torture. In a 2010 post for the National Review, for instance, he described the technique as involving "a few seconds of water being poured over the mouths of terrorists, never entering their stomach or lungs." In his book, Courting Disaster, he relies almost exclusively on the CIA's representations of waterboarding to the Department of Justice when defending the techniques. These representations led the DOJ to believe that waterboarding would be used in a precise, clinical fashion. There would be strict time limits on sessions and, even, on any single pour of water over the covered face of a detainee. "The individual," the DOJ's lawyers believed, "does not breathe any water into his lungs."
The CIA's own internal cables and emails, on which the Senate Intelligence Committee based its findings, have revealed how misleading the CIA's and Thiessen's descriptions of waterboarding have been. Waterboarding sessions often lasted longer than the Agency told the Department of Justice they would. One of Abu Zubaydah's left him "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth." Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's devolved, according to a medic, into "a series of near drownings." During one session, Mohammed ingested enough water that his abdomen "was somewhat distended and he expressed water when the abdomen was pressed." The CIA, in their response to the Senate report, did not deny these excesses.
Since the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's summary of its report, Thiessen has written two opinion pieces for the Washington Post on torture. Neither has addressed the discrepancies between his earlier claims about waterboarding and the report's representations. Nor has he addressed the particularly disturbing finding that the CIA subjected some detainees to "rectal hydration" and "rectal feeding." To admit to these things would require Thiessen to adjust his thinking on "enhanced interrogation." Either he has to admit that he was wrong about the professionalism and restraint of the CIA's interrogation program and withdraw his support of it, since he typically based that support on the program's professionalism, or he has to defend the excesses associated with the program. Always the rhetorician, Thiessen has chosen a third way that does not require him to reckon with the reality of CIA torture. He has cast doubt about the validity of the report as a whole, rather than specific findings, and directed our attention to that public opinion poll.
Ultimately, though, Thiessen's failings are those of the Washington Post. By failing to hold Thiessen accountable for the substance of his factual claims or provide, even, its own independent evaluation of Thiessen's claims, the Washington Post has contributed to the very conditions that have allowed torture to become a partisan issue with sides that base their views on two incompatible sets of facts. The paper's readers and its journalists, who have doggedly reported on CIA torture, deserve better.
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