A new book from a former political speech writer for President George Bush makes a number of wild claims in an effort to "correct the record" about the CIA enhanced interrogation program that featured the use of such "techniques" as waterboarding and slamming detainees heads into walls. The book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, by Mark Thiessen, hit book stores today. An excerpt which ran on The National Review web site calls the CIA interrogators who used these abusive techniques the "real Jack Bauers" but explains that their work was nowhere near as violent as the interrogation scenes depicted on the hit FOX TV program.
Here are some of Thiessen’s more extraordinary claims:
1) The real difference between 24 and the CIA’s "enhanced interrogation" program is that the CIA techniques are not violent. Indeed, he explains CIA interrogators seek to use "the least coercive method necessary" when questioning detainees.
Analysis: So CIA interrogators do not abuse detainees who talk. And they are progressively more violent until detainees talk, which suggests that they were (often) violent.
2) Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative who was waterboarded dozens of times, thanked his interrogators for torturing him because it relieved him of "the moral burden" of resisting.
Analysis: This is so absurd that it really could have happened on 24. The U.S. has to torture detainees because they want to talk, but are required not to until they are tortured? If terrorists really are instructed not to talk until they are tortured then shouldn’t we ask ourselves why Al Qaeda has put this rule in place? Might they see some strategic advantage in encouraging the U.S. to continue these abuses, knowing that the world will always eventually learn of these sorts of injustices?
The most likely explanation though for Zubaydah’s comments (if they are true) is that he did not want to be tortured again. He probably was being obsequious and simply kissing-up to his captors/torturers in an effort to show them that he was fully compliant and there was no need to nearly drown him again! Ironically, according to Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who questioned Zubaydah, the Al Qaeda operative was being helpful before they nearly drowned him so it’s not entirely clear why interrogators sought to use more coercive methods. God knows how Thiessen squares this with his absurd claim #1.
3) Enhanced interrogation techniques are not used to gain info, they are used to generate a "state of cooperation." Indeed, Thiessen says that interrogators don’t even ask detainees questions that they do not know the answers to during torture. The point is, Thiessen writes, to ask questions you already know the answer to and thereby judge compliance by the accuracy of the answers.
Analysis: Not even 24 is that simplistic. Thiessen has never interrogated anyone or spent (it seems) more than a couple of hours talking to interrogators, but the fact of the matter is that interrogation is complicated. A detainee doesn’t go from being willing to die for his cause one minute to being willing to tell the U.S. everything the next simply because a guy shoves his head in a bucket of water. He may dribble out half-truths after being tortured. In some cases, he may give up key details of on-going plots. But the notion that he simply "breaks" instantly and from that point forward he has "switched sides" is so facile that if you were a writer on 24 and tried to present it at a writers meeting for a plot twist in a season, you might very well lose your job.
More likely, Thiessen is confused. Perhaps the interrogators were asking questions they knew the answers to simply because they were attempting to establish "a baseline" by which they could read their subject similar to the way polygraph technicians attempt to get a "read" on their subjects by asking questions where they already know the answers. If the CIA went to all the trouble to abuse these detainees and then did NOT ask them any questions that might reveal anything that we did not already know then the use of these techniques – and all of the harm they have done this country – was even more unnecessary than any of us thought before!
David Danzig is the Deputy Program Director at Human Rights First. He has worked with the writing staff at 24 to encourage them to portray torture on their program in a manner that does not suggest that it is a perfect counter-terror tool that will always cause suspects to reveal critical secrets.