Mark Thiessen: It Was Torture

It's right there in the Washington Post - a defense of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques authorized by president Bush, illustrated at Abu Ghraib, and a cause of at least a dozen and as many as a hundred deaths, (according to the Pentagon and many human rights groups respectively). Thiessen's core defense - that the techniques worked - is at severe odds with his contention that it was not torture:

[T]he memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can -- and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

What defines torture is not this or that specific technique. We could spend hours poring through the countless ways in which human beings have devised to torture defenseless captives over the centuries. What defines torture is applying sufficiently severe mental or physical pain or suffering to force a victim to say anything to make it stop. In terms of time, you can go from the 15 seconds of waterboarding or electrocution to the days, weeks and months of Chinese water-torture, or days and weeks of sleep deprivation. The point is to break people. Or as an Abu Ghraib interrogator conveyed the message from the commander-in-chief in an August 2003 e-mail:

"The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col. Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken."

This is what Thiessen is bragging about here.

It is to subject captives to such levels of physical or mental pain or suffering that they "have reached the limit of their ability to withhold [information] in the face of psychological and physical hardship." This is, in fact, as close to a definition of torture as you are likely to find. Zubaydah understood that torture is the imposition of sufficient physical or psychological pain or suffering to cause even religious fanatics, who believe their very souls are at stake, to have no choice but to submit. And so Western torture returns to its early modern roots: as a tool to prove that the power of government is greater even than the power of religious fanaticism, if you are prepared to treat the human body and soul as objects for total coercion and control. Begin with the inquisition and end with it; only now it is designed against Islamists, not heretical Christians.

Memo to Thiessen: you cannot both argue that the pain and suffering was severe enough to force captives to have no choice but to confess and also argue that it wasn't torture. This is what you call a self-refutation.

Thiessen may not have intended it, but he just wrote an op-ed proving that his former boss, Dick Cheney, is a war criminal.