Marc Thiessen begins his new book, “Courting Disaster,” with something of a disclaimer: For reasons of security and classification, he says, he should not have been able to write it. He’s right. He shouldn’t have been able to write it. But I’m glad he did.
Thiessen jumps into the once murky (and once highly classified) world of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program with zeal and energy. And he puts fresh light on a story that up until now seems to have been taken to the darkest corner of the room at every opportunity.
I opposed the release of the Office of Legal Council memos on the CIA interrogation program last April. I opposed the release of additional memos and the report of the CIA inspector general on the interrogation program last August. But whatever their release did to reveal American secrets to our enemies, it did inject something into the public debate on this program that had been sorely missing—facts.
Thiessen has taken these documents, as well as his own extensive interviews and research, and created for the first time a public account of a program previously hidden from public view. Prior to this, some opponents of the program could create whatever image they wanted to create to support the argument of the moment. And those who were in government at the time were near powerless to correct the record. No longer.
There will still be those who remain adamantly opposed to the interrogation effort, but now they must be opposed to the program as it was, not as they imagined or feared or—dare I say, for some—expected it to be.
Thiessen lays out the facts without much varnish. Here are the techniques, here’s what was learned, here’s why it was thought lawful. And make no mistake, he lays out the facts with a point of view. He stops just a little short of being argumentative, but this is meant to be persuasive as well as expository prose.
He doesn’t use much varnish in his treatment of opponents, either. While not quite condemning them outright, he does take a variety of players to task. He chronicles, for example, the current attorney general’s journey from counter-terrorism hawk in 2002 (“They are not prisoners of war…they are not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention.”) to this in 2008 (“Our government…denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution….We owe the American people a reckoning.”) Thiessen is also not particularly kind to civil liberties lobbies who have seemed to push their agendas without regard for any security consequences and he saves a special brand of disdain for the pro bono work of law firms who seem bent on discovering new “rights” for enemy combatants.
And the book’s subtitle—How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack—should suggest that Thiessen does not think even the president immune from criticism.
As someone who lived and worked them from the inside, I can tell you that these are tough issues and honest men can and do differ on them. Thiessen has been giving as good as he is getting in the numerous interviews he has been giving since the book came out. And I admire his range, from the Catholic Eternal Word Network to Christiane Amanpour on CNN. That people are willing to consider his message is borne out by the book’s popularity to date, No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list and No. 6 for The Washington Post as of this writing.
Thiessen’s instincts for the broader audience seem to be on the mark. Acceptance and even support of the interrogation regime is higher among the general populace that it is among some political elites and that support has seemed to grow as more details of the program have become public.
All of this is good. These issues need to be joined and we need the wisdom of an informed public to help us.
But there’s something even better about this book. In the overheated rhetoric of today’s Washington, we have lost sight of the fact that this program was carried out by real people, acting out of duty, not enthusiasm.
In preparing President Bush’s September 2006 speech on the interrogation program, Thiessen got a chance to meet real CIA interrogators. These decent people told him candidly what they had done, why, how they felt about it and how they felt about the fellow human beings they interrogated. Thiessen recounts how one of the interrogators that I sent down to talk to him was dubbed Emir Harry (not his real name) by KSM.
Thiessen’s book has put a human face on Emir Harry and his associates. That’s a good thing. These people deserve better than to be stalked by the ACLU’s John Adams project or to be subject to a re-investigation of their past activities. For doing what they were asked to do, these quiet professionals are bearing the nation’s burdens still today and Thiessen has given them their due. And that alone would make “Courting Disaster” worth a read.
Michael Hayden is a retired U.S. Air Force four-star general and former director of the National Security Agency and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.