Marc Thiessen and the Dishonest Waterboarding Debate

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“We waterboarded in the CIA–the CIA waterboarded three terrorists. Just three. Nobody was waterboarded at Guantanamo. You know who else the U.S. has waterboarded? Tens of thousands of American service members during their SERE training.”

–Marc Thiessen, former White House speechwriter on CNN, January 20, 2010

In late January, the former Bush Administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen, who has since become a Washington Post columnist, appeared on Christiane Amanpour’s CNN show to discuss harsh waterboarding. He made a splash.

Mid-interview, Thiessen pulled out a transcript of a previous Amanpour report in which the CNN host had compared the U.S. practice of waterboarding to a water torture practice used by the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. “There have been so many misstatements made about the enhanced interrogation techniques, comparing them to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge, and I have to tell you Christiane you are one of the people who have spread these mistruths.” Amanpour’s journalistic failing, according to Thiessen, was a report in which Amanpour had visited a former Khmer Rouge prison, looked at a painting in which a prisoner was submerged in a “box of water,” and then asked someone if they knew that this technique had been used on U.S. terror suspects. In other words, Amanpour had gotten the details of the CIA version of waterboarding wrong. CIA interrogators never used a box of water when they waterboarded.

Thiessen was right, and he can be applauded for pointing out the distinction. But then what are we to make of the fact that just a few minutes later, on the very same CNN show, Thiessen clearly committed the same error? As he has before and since, Thiessen claimed that the waterboarding of U.S. terror suspects was not so bad because the technique has been used on “tens of thousands” of U.S. servicemen in training. Now, Thiessen knows the CIA program inside and out. He has written a book on it. And it seems inconceivable to me that he did not know he is clearly misrepresenting the waterboarding techniques that the CIA used.

The Bush-era Justice Department, the same agency that approved the techniques, admitted as much, as my former colleague Mark Benjamin notes in a story today for Salon describing in detail the CIA waterboarding process.

The CIA’s waterboarding was “different” from training for elite soldiers, according to the Justice Department document released last month. “The difference was in the manner in which the detainee’s breathing was obstructed,” the document notes. In soldier training, “The interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth (on a soldier’s face) in a controlled manner,” DOJ wrote. “By contrast, the agency interrogator … continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose.”

There were other differences. The SERE training program used water. The CIA program used saline solution, because the duration and volume of water was so intense that CIA doctors feared the detainees would die of hyponatremia. Benjamin continues:

While Bush-Cheney officials defended the legality and safety of waterboarding by noting the practice has been used to train U.S. service members to resist torture, the documents show that the agency’s methods went far beyond anything ever done to a soldier during training. U.S. soldiers, for example, were generally waterboarded with a cloth over their face one time, never more than twice, for about 20 seconds, the CIA admits in its own documents.

As I have said before, I think it is a good thing that Marc Thiessen wants to keep the debate over harsh interrogation going. These are hard issues, and I do not think they have been fully digested by the American people. For instance, I think most people have still not fully understood that some of the worst pain inflicted on prisoners came not from the waterboarding, but from the CIA policy of forced sleep deprivation by stress position for as long as seven consecutive days during periods of extended caloric limitation. But I remain disappointed with the quality of Thiessen’s arguments, which seem to be designed more for cable news soundbites than for serious discussion. I wish he held himself to a higher standard.

The full CNN clip follows below.