The Magazine

Safe at Home

‘A small effort which paid big dividends’ in the war on terror.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Courting Disaster

Safe at Home

How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama
 Is Inviting the Next Attack
by Marc A. Thiessen
Regnery, 376 pp., $29.95

Marc Thiessen is not a lawyer, nor does he play one on TV. 

However, should he ever decide to put aside his current professional life as a foreign policy hand and speechwriter, he should think about giving a career in the law a look. Based on the fact that Courting Disaster, his defense of the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program, is the most detailed and comprehensive brief for that program put forward to date. And in making that brief, he also makes a compelling case that the Washington Post, New York Times, Christiane Amanpour, Andrew Sullivan, Jane Mayer, and sundry others have engaged in journalistic malpractice by the selective reporting of facts, or ignoring of facts altogether, when it came to the CIA program. Many wanted to believe the worst about the CIA, the Bush White House, and the “war on terror,” and wrote and editorialized accordingly.

As detailed here, the CIA program of secret detentions and “enhanced interrogation techniques”—which included sleep deprivation, cold cells, head and belly slaps, prolonged standing, “walling,” and water boarding—was a relatively small effort which paid big dividends. Out of the thousands detained by the United States and allies in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and from around the world, some 100 were handed over to the agency, where approximately one-third were subjected to the enhanced interrogation techniques, but only three were subjected to the most extreme of those methods, waterboarding. 

Yet, it was those interrogations, according to Thiessen, that resulted in the government’s going from being virtually blind when it came to al Qaeda at the time of the 9/11 attacks to obtaining lead after lead about follow-on plots, previously unknown networks, and the operational ins and outs of al Qaeda itself. Some half of what we came to know about Osama bin Laden and his allies came directly from those grillings, with the result that Courting Disaster can plausibly point to the fact that, before the interrogation program was established, the United States had suffered four major al Qaeda attacks—the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of American embassies in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and 9/11—while after .  .  . none. 

On the program’s effectiveness, it was then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet who famously said that it “is worth more than [what] the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.” Nor was Tenet alone in this view. As Thiessen points out, virtually everyone who has examined the program has supported that opinion. Indeed, even Dennis Blair, the Obama administration’s choice to head up the U. S. intelligence community, testified to the fact that “high value information came from interrogations in which [enhanced interrogation] methods were used.” 

Blair followed up this point with the comment that “there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.” But is that the case? As Thiessen observes, we do know that attempts to interrogate terrorists using FBI techniques both before and after the 9/11 attacks produced nowhere near the same level of information. In fact, in two cases documented in the book—one involving the interrogation of a key al Qaeda logistician, and the second, the would-be 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attack—the FBI’s interrogators were at best getting dribs and drabs, and more significant intelligence was obtained only after enhanced interrogation techniques were used. This, of course, does not disprove Blair’s point conclusively, but it does indicate that getting that information in an operationally timely manner through the FBI’s methods, and under the strictures of the Army Field Manual (as currently mandated by the administration), is not something one might want to count on. 

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