At The Corner, Marc Thiessen responded to my contention that his defense of torture is more in line with the tradition of Zeus and Odin than of Moses and Christ. I’m not surprised that he would take offense at such a suggestion, but since he is a Catholic I presumed he would provide a rebuttal based on Christian ethics or on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Instead, his response seems to have come directly from the Catechism of the Central Intelligence Agency.

I suppose that is all that could be expected since torture cannot be defended based on Christian principles. But it at least would have been entertaining to see him make an effort. That would have been preferable to the ill-argued points he makes, which I feel obligated to respond to in detail.

Over at First Things, Joe Carter takes exception to my assertion that those who oppose enhanced interrogation are arguing from a position of radical pacifism — and accuses me of being . . . a pagan. My goodness.

Actually, I never accuse him of being a pagan—only of making an argument based on pagan principles. As we shall see, Mr. Thiessen’s apology for the practical and moral superiority of certain methods of torture fails to convince otherwise.
[Carter] asserts — while presenting absolutely no evidence to back his claim — that enhanced interrogation techniques employed by the CIA are torture;

For anyone that remains unclear on the meaning of the term, I’ve listed seven legal definitions of torture at the end of this post. Now let’s take a look at the list of enhanced interrogation techniques that the CIA employed:


1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning .


The last three indisputably fit the definition of torture under all seven references. Mr. Theissen may prefer to use his own private definition, but it does not change the fact that waterboarding—the technique that we are debating—fits the legal definitions of torture.
. . . that they have been considered torture since the Spanish Inquisition . . . All of this is false.

From The Spanish Inquisition , a book by Oxford scholar Cecil Roth:
The water-torture was more ingenious, and more fiendish. The prisoner was fastened almost naked on a sort of trestle with sharp-edged rungs and kept in position with an iron band, his head lower than his feet, and his limbs bound to the side-pieces with agonizing tightness. The mouth was then forced open and a strip of linen inserted into the gullet. Through this, water was poured from a jar ( jarra ), obstructing the throat and nostrils and producing a state of semi-suffocation. The process was repeated time after time, as many as eight jarras being applied.

How does this differ from the CIA method?
. . . and that “the U.S government considered waterboarding to be torture when it was used on our soldiers in World War II.” . . . All of this is false.

During the U.S. Army Trials of Japanese War Criminals Conducted in Yokohama, Japan , Yukio Asano was charged with “Violation of the Laws and Customs of War: 1. Did willfully and unlawfully mistreat and torture PWs.” Among the specifications listed were “beating using hands, fists, club; kicking; water torture; burning using cigarettes; strapping on a stretcher head downward”

No doubt Mr. Thieseen will regale us with some bit of sophistry about how this “water torture” (simulated drowning) is radically different from waterboarding (which is also simulated drowning).

Then Carter really blunders. He says waterboarding “would be considered torture if used on our servicemembers today.” Really? He seems oblivious to the fact that waterboarding is used on our servicemembers today — by their own government. Tens of thousands of American troops have been waterboarded during SERE training (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape).

Here is what Malcolm Nance, counter-terrorism and terrorism intelligence consultant for the U.S. government’s Special Operations and a former Navy SERE school instructor, said in Small Wars Journal about the difference between waterboarding in training and what was done by the CIA:
The carnival-like he-said, she-said of the legality of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques has become a form of doublespeak worthy of Catch-22 . Having been subjected to them all, I know these techniques, if in fact they are actually being used, are not dangerous when applied in training for short periods. However, when performed with even moderate intensity over an extended time on an unsuspecting prisoner – it is torture, without doubt.

Also, the CIA’s own Inspector General says that what they did and what is done in SERE training are completely different:
A footnote in the recently released 2004 CIA Office of Inspector General’s review of the government’s interrogation program appears to undermine a key legal justification that allowed the spy agency to use the controversial technique of waterboarding against suspected terrorist detainees.

A central legal—and polemic—argument for use of waterboarding has been the fact that some U.S. soldiers are subjected to the procedure during training. In 2002, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote a memo approving the technique, based in part on the fact that it had produced no long-term ill effects on soldiers who had undergone waterboarding during training. Those memos were later withdrawn by the DOJ.

But the latest review shows the waterboarding technique used on suspected terrorists was different in technique and duration from that administered to U.S. soldiers.

The OIG report says that experts’ initial analysis of waterboarding “was probably misrepresented at the time,” according to the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, because “the SERE [survival, evasion, resistance, and escape program] waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant.”

As a consequence, the OIG found, “according to [the Office of Medical Services], there was no a priori reason to believe that applying the waterboard with the frequency and intensity with which it was used by the psychologist/interrogators was either efficacious or medically safe.”


Theissen continues:
[Carter] says “the evidence that waterboarding helped stop a number of terrorist attacks is debatable.” Again, he presents no evidence to back this claim — which is demonstrably wrong.

Here is the testimony of FBI interrogator Ali Soufan presented to the Senate Judiciary committee:
The issue that I am here to discuss today – interrogation methods used to question terrorists – is not, and should not be, a partisan matter. We all share a commitment to using the best interrogation method possible that serves our national security interests and fits squarely within the framework of our nation’s principles.

From my experience – and I speak as someone who has personally interrogated many terrorists and elicited important actionable intelligence– I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation.

These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda.


Whether Soufan is correct or not, the issue of the techniques effectiveness is certainly—as I claimed—open to honest debate.
The fact is that virtually every impartial investigation into the efficacy of the CIA interrogation program has concluded that it produced intelligence that saved lives.

I’m curious to hear what impartial investigation Mr. Theissen is referring. The only sources that I’ve seen claim that the techniques were effective were . . . the officials who employed the techniques. Considering that they were under scrutiny for violating several laws, I think they would have reason to provide as much justification as possible for their actions.
Carter then pulls out the tired argument, asserting that “waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are not the only means of extracting information from our enemies.” And he suggests — I kid you not — that we could have broken Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by offering him . . . sugar cookies. And he calls my arguments embarrassing?

Mr. Theissen is just getting desperate now. Here is what I actually said:
Fortunately, waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not the only means of extracting information from our enemies. In fact, the most successful interrogation of an Al-Qaeda operative by U.S. officials after 9/11 involved a less dramatic interrogation tool: sugar cookies. Even the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohamed was subjected to waterboarding 183 times in a one month period casts doubts on its utility and shows that it would be completely worthless in the hypothetical “ticking-timebomb” scenarios that torture-apologists tend to favor. Perhaps Theissen should familirize himself with the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses before making such overly broad, and spurious, claims about what is required to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Thiessen can add strawman to the list of fallacies he is willing to commit to defend torture.
Finally, Carter questions my credentials for even discussing these matters because I was just a “speechwriter.” Another big blunder. Unlike Carter, I was actually read in to the CIA program. Unlike Carter, I have seen the intelligence it produced. Unlike Carter, I have met and spoken with the actual interrogators who broke KSM and other terrorists. In other words, I know a heck of a lot more about this topic than he does.

Another strawman. Let’s examine what I actually said:
No offense to Mr. Thiessen’s experience as a speechwriter for the former Secretary of Defense, but I would prefer to trust the judgment of these men—these radical pacifists—who are intimately familiar with torture, war, and the best means of keeping our nation safe.

The men I am referring to are Sen. John McCain, Gen. Charles Krulak (former commandant of the Marine Corps), Joseph Hoar (former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command), and John Hutson (former Judge Advocate General of the Navy). Mr. Theissen may be a speechwriter who had access to the people in the CIA, but I will still trust the knowledge and experience of these men over his. The fact that he has proven himself willing to parrot just about anything he heard from a CIA official in order to defend them makes him less than an reliable, unbiased, non-partisan source.
The fact is, CIA interrogators are good and decent men who went to great lengths to ensure the safety of terrorists in their custody. We should be grateful to them for taking on the thankless and difficult job of interrogating captured terrorists. They elicited information that saved countless innocent lives. Like our soldiers in battle, they took on unpleasant responsibilities so that we could sleep safely in our beds. To call them torturers is not only wrong, it is ungrateful. They are not torturers; they are heroes.

While I have a great deal of respect for the men and women of the CIA, the fact remains that some of them were willing to commit torture. They may have done so with the best of intentions, and because of that I would not want to see them prosecuted for those crimes. But the fact remains that despite Mr. Thiessen’s efforts at sophistry and Orwellian euphemism, the actions are legally and morally considered torture.
Their actions deserve to be defended not just on pragmatic grounds, but on moral grounds as well.

While I will concede that a case could be made on pragmatic grounds, the moral justification is hard to understand. Perhaps my Catholic friends can inform him of the Church’s positions on torture, the treatment of prisoners, and Machiavellianism. Maybe then he can try again, this time presenting an argument based on Christian principles.

See also: Thiessen’s Catechism on Torture (Part II)

Addendum: Legal Definitions of Torture


  1. Part 1, Article 1 and the US Reservations of the UN Convention Against Torture : The term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession , punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

  2. The US Reservations for the UN Convention Against Torture : In order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

  3. Article 32 of the Fourth Geneva Convention any measure of such a character as to cause the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons in their hands . This prohibition applies not only to murder, torture, corporal punishments, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment of a protected person, but also to any other measures of brutality whether applied by civilian or military agents .

  4. Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention : torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health

  5. Article 7(2)(e) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court “Torture” means the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused ; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions.

  6. Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture For the purposes of this Convention, torture shall be understood to be any act intentionally performed whereby physical or mental pain or suffering is inflicted on a person for purposes of criminal investigation , as a means of intimidation, as personal punishment, as a preventive measure, as a penalty, or for any other purpose. Torture shall also be understood to be the use of methods upon a person intended to obliterate the personality of the victim or to diminish his physical or mental capacities, even if they do not cause physical pain or mental anguish. The concept of torture shall not include physical or mental pain or suffering that is inherent in or solely the consequence of lawful measures, provided that they do not include the performance of the acts or use of the methods referred to in this article.

  7. 18 United States Code Title 18, §2340(2) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control
    (2)“severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
    (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
    (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
    (C) the threat of imminent death; or
    (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality;

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