On waterboarding: Let's stick to the facts

Joshua Nistas/US Army

Soldiers run in front of Honor Board sign at Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp Delta, June 2010.

Article Highlights

  • On waterboarding, let's stick to the facts

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  • Even in captivity, terrorists hold great power to kill thousands

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  • Waterboarding bears no resemblance to torture employed during Spanish Inquisition

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It was disappointing to see The Post's editorial on waterboarding this morning replete with so many discredited arguments.  Reasonable people can disagree about whether the United States should resume using enhanced interrogation techniques(as it appears it will if a Republican assumes the presidency in January 2013). But we should at least debate this proposition based on facts.

For example, The Post writes: "Imagine that a U.S. soldier is captured and subjected to waterboarding. Would Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann considerthat torture?  Maybe not, given their disappointing responses to a question about waterboarding posed during Saturday's Republican debate. And if they did object to the soldier's treatment, they've lost the moral authority to argue against it."

"Indeed, it is precisely because they target the innocent that we must coerce them."--Marc Thiessen

Well, no.  It would be illegal for a foreign adversary to waterboard a U.S. soldier, even if the technique did not amount to torture. American troops are lawful combatants.  They wear uniforms or distinctive insignia, follow a clear chain of command, do not hide among innocent civilians, and do not target innocent men, women and children.  Because they follow the laws of war, when captured they receive full privileges as Prisoners of War underthe Geneva Conventions - which means it would be illegal for their captors to coerce them in any way, much less waterboard them. 

Terrorists, by contrast, are unlawful combatants.  They do not wear uniforms or distinctive insignia, or follow a clear chain of command.  Not only do they hide among innocent civilians, their primary means of attacking us is to target innocent men, women and children for death.  Because they violate the laws of war, they do not receive the privileges that a lawful combatant receives as a POW under Geneva.  As a result of their own choices, the United States may lawfully coerce them to provide information about imminent terrorist attacks. 

Indeed, it is precisely because they target the innocent that we must coerce them.  When an American soldier is captured and taken off the battlefield,he has been effectively disarmed and rendered unable to cause harm to the enemy.  But when a terrorist like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is captured, and he has set in motion a series of terrorist plots, he has not been disarmed.  Even in captivity, he still holds the power to kill thousands simply by withholding information.  We have a moral obligation to stop him.

The Post writes that waterboarding "has been considered torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition."   As I document meticulously in my book "Courting Disaster," waterboarding as practiced by the CIA bears no resemblance whatsoever to the water torture employed during the Spanish Inquisition, or for that matter by Imperial Japan, the Khmer Rouge or Nazi Germany.  I am certain The Post can make an effective case against waterboarding without comparing the men and women of our intelligence community to Medieval torturers.

The Post writes that supporters of enhanced interrogation "have asserted that waterboarding led to important intelligence gains. It is not clear this is true."  Yes it is.  In response to a direct question about the role of enhanced interrogation in the bin Laden operation, then-CIA Director LeonPanetta confirmed that, "Obviously there was, there was some valuable intelligence that was derived through those kind of interrogations." His immediate predecessor, Mike Hayden, was even more explicit, declaring, "Let the record show that when I was first briefed in 2007 about the brightening prospect of pursuing bin Laden through his courier network, a crucial component of the briefing was information provided by three CIA detainees, all of whom had been subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation." 

Indeed, Hayden compares those who deny the valuable intelligence obtained as a result of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques to"birthers" who insist that President Obama was not born in the United States and "9/11 ‘truthers' who, lacking any evidence whatsoever, claim that 9/11 was a Bush administration plot." And for those who cling to such notions, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, he has suggested a simple solution:  If no valuable intelligence came from those interrogations, they should urge President Obama to destroy all the interrogation reports and never use them again. I doubt The Post would advocate doing so or that President Obama would heed such calls - because he knows his administration uses and depends on that intelligence every day.

The Post writes that enhanced interrogation "leads to unreliable admissionsby victims who are desperate to stop the mistreatment."  Again, this isincorrect.  Enhanced techniques were never used to gain intelligence. They were used to gain cooperation.  They were used tomove terrorists like KSM from a state of resistance to a state of compliance. To gauge whether terrorists had made decision to stop resisting and start cooperating, interrogators asked the terrorists questions to which they already knew the answers. In other words, there is no way a terroristc an lie to get  the techniques to stop. The only way to stop the techniques is to tell the truth. And once terrorists began telling the truth, the techniques stopped and traditional debriefing techniques were employed -leading to an intelligence bonanza from which the Obama administration continues to benefit today.

There are certainly reasonable arguments against enhanced interrogation, and  The Post should vigorously make its case. But the paper would be more effectiv in doing so if it stuck to the facts and did not ignore the evidence and counter-arguments that have been laid out by supporters of such techniques.    

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI

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About the Author


Marc A.
  • A member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush, Marc A. Thiessen served as chief speechwriter to the president and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Thiessen spent more than six years as spokesman and senior policy adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He is a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, and his articles can be found in many major publications. His book on the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation program, Courting Disaster (Regnery Press, 2010), is a New York Times bestseller. At AEI, Thiessen writes about U.S. foreign and defense policy issues for The American and the Enterprise Blog. He appears every Sunday on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" and makes frequent appearances on other TV and talk radio programs.

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