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With her recent review of my book, Courting Disaster, Jane Mayer may have done a service to future generations of public servants. The week her article appeared in The New Yorker, former CIA director Mike Hayden handed it out in his class at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy as an example of all that is wrong with intelligence journalism today.
Little wonder General Hayden chose Mayer’s piece as a teaching moment. Her review is replete with factual errors, contradictions, and straw men. She repeatedly misrepresents what is said in my book, and leaves out vital details that undermine her arguments.
Mayer declares categorically that “the Bush administration’s interrogation policies . . . yielded no appreciable intelligence benefit.” Really? She must not have been listening when Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, declared: “High value information came from [CIA] interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” She must have forgotten that when she herself interviewed Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA director, he told her, “Important information was gathered from these detainees. [The CIA program] provided information that was acted upon.” And she must have forgotten her 2007 interview (also quoted in the Panetta article) with John Brennan (now Obama’s homeland-security advisor), in which she asked him if enhanced interrogation techniques “were necessary to keep America safe,” and he replied: “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”
And these are just the assessments of senior officials of the Obama administration. Former director of national intelligence John Negroponte, a career diplomat who has worked for presidents of both parties, has said: “This has been one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable . . . human intelligence program with respect to Al Qaeda. It has given us invaluable information that has saved American lives.” Former CIA director George Tenet–appointed to the job by President Clinton–has declared: “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than what the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.” Former CIA director Mike Hayden–a career military officer appointed by Clinton to run the National Security Agency and then by Bush to run the CIA–has said: “The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work.” And former director of national intelligence Mike McConnell–also a career officer who served as NSA director under Clinton–told me that the CIA interrogation program “gained us information that, in my view, saved lives” (Courting Disaster, pp. 119–120).
In her review, Mayer asks us to accept that all of these CIA directors and directors of national intelligence from both Democratic and Republican administrations are wrong, and she is right. Readers can judge for themselves.
But there is more. Last December, the Justice Department headed by Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, filed a brief in federal court that attested, on pain of perjury, to valuable intelligence the CIA interrogation program had produced. The brief was filed in response to a motion by a former CIA detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, who asked the court to dismiss the charges against him for his role in the bombings of our embassies in East Africa because his CIA detention had denied him a speedy trial. The Holder Justice Department argued in response that the delay was justified because Ghailani provided critical, life-saving intelligence under CIA questioning. “When he was captured, the defendant was believed to have, and did in fact have, actionable intelligence about al Qaeda,” the brief stated. After several redacted paragraphs describing intelligence that Ghailani provided, the brief declared, “The results of the CIA’s efforts show that the defendant’s value as an intelligence source was not just speculative.” It added that “significant intelligence had been collected from the defendant” and that “the information supplied by the defendant had important real world effects” and was used “to prevent future terrorist attacks and incapacitate others.” This is the official assessment of the effectiveness of CIA interrogation by the Holder Justice Department.
In her review, Mayer writes admiringly of former CIA inspector general John Helgerson and his investigation into the CIA interrogation program. Yet she fails to share with her readers the fact that Helgerson’s report demolishes her claim that the CIA program produced no appreciable intelligence. On page 85, in a section entitled “Effectiveness,” Helgerson writes that CIA “interrogation has provided intelligence that has enabled the identification and apprehension of other terrorists, warned of terrorist plots planned for the United States and around the world . . . ” Some of these plots, which Helgerson said the agency did not know about before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees were interrogated, included “plans to . . . attack the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; hijack aircraft to fly into Heathrow Airport . . . [and] hijack and fly an airplane into the tallest building in California in a west coast version of the World Trade Center attack.” Helgerson specifically states that “Riduan ‘Hambali’ Isomuddin provided information that led to the arrest of previously unknown members of an al Qaeda cell in Karachi. They were designated as pilots for an aircraft attack inside the United States.” Mayer does not share any of this with her readers.
Her review also contains a number of sloppy errors. For example, Mayer falsely states that I claim in my book that the CIA interrogation program helped uncover a 1995 plan by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed known as the “Bojinka plot” to blow up a dozen planes over the Pacific Ocean. She writes: “Thiessen’s claim about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed looks equally shaky. The Bush interrogation program hardly discovered the Philippine airlines plot: in 1995, police in Manila stopped it from proceeding.”
In fact, I never make any such claim in my book–obviously it would have been impossible for a program that started in 2002 to have disrupted a terrorist plot in 1995. What I do write is that during CIA questioning, “KSM describes in detail the revisions he made to his failed 1994–1995 plan known as the ‘Bojinka plot’–formulated with his nephew Ramzi Yousef–to blow up a dozen airplanes carrying some 4,000 passengers over the Pacific Ocean” (i.e., these are revisions he made to the plot for the next attempt). I explain (Courting Disaster, pages 7–8) that years later, in 2006, an observant CIA officer noticed that the activities of a cell being followed by British authorities appeared to match the revised plan KSM described, and that the CIA officer shared this information with the British authorities. At first they were skeptical, but later they acknowledged that this was in fact what the cell was planning. It was this critical information from KSM that uncovered the terrorists’ true intentions.
Mayer quotes an official from Scotland Yard (headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police) who says this account is “completely and utterly wrong.” When I asked one former senior CIA official what to make of this, he laughed and asked: “How would he know?” The CIA, he explained, has no liaison with London’s Metropolitan Police–it deals with MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service) and sometimes with MI5 (the Security Service). An official from the Metropolitan Police, he said, would have no way of knowing what intelligence the CIA shared with MI6 or MI5, much less the ultimate source of that intelligence. Another former intelligence official agreed with this assessment, telling me: “The British deserve a great deal of credit for this operation, but a significant portion of the ‘back room’ was comprised of American intelligence information and operations.” That includes intelligence provided by KSM.
The only other authority Mayer cites to dispute my account of this incident is a journalist, Peter Bergen, who claims that the disruption of the terrorists’ plans “had nothing to do with waterboarding or Guantanamo detainees.” Bergen is famous for having once interviewed Osama bin Laden, but he has never had access to the intelligence from any CIA interrogations or from the military interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. By contrast, the source I cite in my book for the contribution of Guantanamo detainees to the 2006 plot’s disruption (which Mayer conveniently fails to mention) is Paul Rester, the director of the joint intelligence group at Guantanamo Bay (page 310). Not only has Rester seen intelligence from terrorists at Guantanamo, in many instances he collected it himself. Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Cucullu interviewed Rester and other Guantanamo officials for his excellent book, Inside Gitmo. Based on this research, Cucullu writes: “In the multiple-aircraft hijacking planned for the United Kingdom in summer 2006, many of the plotters had already been identified by intelligence sources in Guantanamo as possible terrorists and placed on watch lists by British intelligence.”
Mayer accuses me of falsely claiming “that there was ‘only one single case’ in which ‘inhumane’ techniques were used” in the CIA interrogation program, adding: “That case, [Thiessen] writes, involved the detainee Abd al-Rahim Nashiri, whom a C.I.A. interrogator threatened with a handgun to the head, and with an electric drill.” She again fails to mention that this is not my opinion, but the conclusion of–once again–CIA Inspector General John Helgerson. It is Helgerson who declared on page 41 of his report that this incident was the only example in which “unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques were used” in the program. The abuses, Helgerson said, were reported to headquarters by CIA officers on the ground; he investigated and referred his findings to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute; and the individual in question was then disciplined for his conduct and eventually resigned.
Mayer also writes–incorrectly–that “a C.I.A. interrogator threatened” Nashiri. This betrays her ignorance of how the CIA program actually worked. If she had bothered to read Helgerson’s report, she would know that the individual in question was not an interrogator but a debriefer–a critical distinction. In Courting Disaster, I cite internal CIA guidelines, which explain that only carefully trained interrogators were allowed to use enhanced techniques, and only with advance approval from headquarters. Debriefers–CIA analysts who came in and conducted non-aggressive questioning after enhanced interrogations had ended–were not allowed to use the techniques at all. So this was a case of an untrained individual going far out of his lane, applying interrogation techniques without authorization from headquarters, and using techniques that would not have been approved if authorization had been requested–and then being punished for doing so. Mayer, who claims expertise on CIA interrogations, apparently is not aware of the difference between a debriefer and an interrogator.
Mayer writes that I fail to mention the case of one terrorist who was left to freeze to death at a CIA-run prison in Afghanistan. She is right that I do not mention this particular case, which took place early in the war on terror and outside the CIA interrogation program. Her implication is that I gloss over the issue of deaths in custody. The opposite is true. I discuss at length another case outside the program that was cited in Helgerson’s report, in which a CIA contractor, David Passaro, was “alleged to have severely beaten [a] detainee with a large flashlight and kicked him during interrogation sessions.” The detainee later died in custody. I explain that Passaro’s case was referred to the Justice Department, where he was prosecuted for assault (it could not be proven the assault led directly to the detainee’s death) and convicted. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. I point out that one of the reasons the CIA created a formal detention and interrogation program was to prevent abuses like this (and the case Mayer cites). I even asked General Hayden about this incident, and quote him in my book explaining that “one of the motivations behind the program was, if we were going to hold people, we were going to do it under very strict guidance, under a very tight regime, a regime that was lawful and carefully regulated in all meanings of the word” (pp. 179–180). Mayer seems unaware of this.
Mayer further ignores the fact that, once the formal interrogation program was created, Helgerson found that “Agency personnel–with one notable exception described in this Review [the Nashiri case]–followed guidance and procedures and documented their activities well. . . . [T]here were few deviations from approved procedures.” He also found that “Agency components and individuals invested immense time and effort to implement the [interrogation and detention] Program quickly, effectively, and within the law” (see p. 5, and also p. 102). Again, this is not my conclusion, but the conclusion of the CIA inspector general Mayer claims to admire.
Not only do I not gloss over deaths in custody, I discuss at great length a 2006 report by Human Rights First, which alleges that “Since August 2002, nearly 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global ‘war on terror’ [their quotation marks]. According to the U.S. military’s own classifications, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides” (emphasis added). I point out that none of these deaths took place in the CIA interrogation program, and only 34 of the cases involved even alleged wrongdoing. I detail the steps that were taken to investigate and punish these and other acts of wrongdoing. I also point out that by 2006 the United States had captured or held about 80,000 individuals in the war on terror. A hundred deaths since the war began–most involving no wrongdoing–would mean that just 0.125 percent of all detainees held by the United States died in custody. By contrast, according to historian Stephen Ambrose, the mortality rate for German POWs held by the Allies during World War II was 1 percent–eight times as high as in the war on terror. The fact is far more German prisoners died of abuse or neglect in Allied custody–including some who froze in their cells–than terrorist detainees in American custody. (See pages 181–182 and 197–200.)
Mayer complains that I dare to dispute FBI agent Ali Soufan’s claim that he got information from leading al-Qaeda recruiter Abu Zubaydah, using non-coercive methods, that led to the capture of the American-born al-Qaeda terrorist José Padilla. She writes: “Thiessen dismisses Soufan’s firsthand account as ‘simply false’ on the ground that another F.B.I. agent involved in Zubaydah’s interrogation–whom Thiessen doesn’t identify–told the Justice Department’s Inspector General that he didn’t recall Soufan’s getting the information” (emphasis added).
Mayer leaves out what I actually wrote: “According to the Justice Department Inspector General, Soufan’s claims are simply false.” And she must be hoping readers don’t bother to look at the actual Justice Department report and find how she has misled them. Here it is. Go to pages 68–99, where you will see that Soufan’s partner did not tell the inspector general that “he didn’t recall Soufan’s getting the information,” as Mayer claims. He told the inspector general that he did see what happened, and that it was the CIA–not Soufan–that got the information on Padilla after the agency took over Zubaydah’s interrogation.
According to the inspector general, Soufan’s partner (referred to as Agent Gibson) continued to work with the CIA after Soufan had objected to its techniques. Gibson told the inspector general he “did not have a ‘moral objection’ to being present for the CIA techniques because the CIA was acting professionally and Gibson himself had undergone comparable harsh interrogation techniques as part of U.S. Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training.” He said that “CIA personnel assured him that the procedures being used on Zubaydah had been approved ‘at the highest levels’ and that Gibson would not get in any trouble. Gibson stated that during the CIA interrogations Zubaydah ‘gave up’ Jose Padilla and identified several targets for future al-Qaeda attacks” (emphasis added). Gibson “recalled” what happened just fine. Mayer misquotes me, and she misquotes the inspector general.
Mayer also accuses me of dismissing Soufan’s “firsthand account.” Yet in the very next breath she dismisses the “firsthand account” of Soufan’s partner, as well as the “firsthand accounts” of all the CIA interrogators quoted in my book–people who, unlike Mayer’s sources, were actually in the room when CIA interrogations took place. (Mayer declares: “Thiessen never questions the wisdom of relying on CIA officials to assess the legality and effectiveness of their own controversial program.”) It seems that Mayer’s enthusiasm for “firsthand” accounts depends on whether they support her torture narrative.
More factual errors: Mayer writes incorrectly that “Thiessen presents the termination of the CIA program as a renegade action by President Obama. . . . Yet Thiessen knows that waterboarding and other human rights abuses, such as dispatching prisoners into secret indefinite detention, were abandoned by the Bush administration: he wrote the very speech announcing, in 2006, that the administration was suspending their use.”
Apparently, Mayer did not actually read the 2006 speech (the full text is reproduced in my book). If she had, she would have known that the speech did not discuss interrogation techniques at all (President Bush: “I cannot describe the specific methods used… if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning”), nor did it discuss details of how terrorists would be detained in the future.
However, I do discuss both matters in my book. Apparently Mayer also did not read the parts where I explain that waterboarding was no longer part of the formal CIA program by the time Obama took office: “Bush administration officials had already taken the most controversial interrogation techniques out of the approved program–sacrificing some effectiveness in order to get a program that could be supported by future administrations, regardless of party” (p. 334). She also missed the sections where I describe how General Hayden had scaled back the program to just six techniques: the facial hold, attention grasp, tummy slap, facial slap, a diet of liquid Ensure, and a maximum of four days’ sleep deprivation (p. 334). She missed where I explain why the scaled-down program still worked–because the terrorists did not know this was all they would face–and recount the story of a senior al-Qaeda terrorist named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, who was captured in 2007 and questioned under the more limited program. When told he was in CIA custody, he said: “I’ve heard of you guys. I’ll tell you anything you need to know.” Just the existence of the program, and the uncertainty of what he might face, I explain, was enough to get this al-Qaeda terrorist talking (p. 56–60).
Mayer also missed where I explain what actually constituted President Obama’s “renegade action”: He removed this uncertainty by revealing the secrets behind how we question terrorists; he also eliminated even the scaled-down program and ordered that all interrogations must follow the Army Field Manual (which is available on the Internet for download in Waziristan). She missed the section where I describe in detail how General Hayden and Admiral McConnell tried to convince the incoming Obama national-security team that “All those things you think you need to do, we already did them in 2006″ (pp. 335–337). Mayer seems unaware all of this–which really makes one wonder how much she read of the book she presumes to critique.
Mayer disputes my assertion that “there was no torture at Guantanamo” and quotes Susan Crawford, the military judge who once presided over military commissions at Guantanamo, to demonstrate that there was “at least one case” of torture at the detention center. Mayer is referring to the interrogation of Mohammed al-Kahtani, the 20th hijacker, which I discuss in great detail in my book (pp. 294–305). Yet she fails to share with her readers that multiple investigations of Kahtani’s interrogation found that he was not tortured. Mayer fails to share the fact that a 2005 investigation by Lieutenant General Randall Schmidt and Brigadier General John Furlow found that, while Kahtani’s interrogation was “abusive and degrading. . . . ) every technique employed . . . was legally permissible under existing guidance” and his interrogation “did not rise to the level of prohibited inhumane treatment.” Mayer also fails to report that Schmidt and Furlow–who reviewed thousands of documents, statements, and medical records and interviewed 30 FBI agents and over 100 Guantanamo personnel–concluded there was “no evidence of torture or inhumane treatment at JTF-GTMO [Joint Task Force Guantanamo].”
Mayer fails to share with her readers the findings of Navy Inspector General A. T. Church III, author of the Church Report examining allegations of detainee abuse. Admiral Church told me that in the wake of Abu Ghraib he was expecting to find evidence that senior officials had ordered a policy of abuse. “I thought going in that I was going to find something different. I thought I was going to find the dots connecting,” Church said. “But the facts didn’t bear that out” (pp. 284–285). His report concluded: “We can confidently state that based upon our investigation, we found nothing that would in any way substantiate detainees’ allegations of torture or violent physical abuse at GTMO.”
And Mayer also ignores the fact that Kahtani was interviewed by the Justice Department’s inspector general on February 27, 2007, and told him “the worst place I was taken to” at Guantanamo was not the military interrogation room, but rather the solitary-confinement cell he was placed in by FBI agent Ali Soufan. Indeed, the inspector general found that Soufan had isolated and threatened Kahtani in a manner that “would likely be considered coercive and contrary to FBI policies for custodial interviews in the United States” (p. 81).
Mayer writes: “Tellingly, Thiessen does not address the many false confessions given by detainees under torturous pressure, some of which have led the U.S. tragically astray. Nowhere in this book, for instance, does the name Ibn Sheikh al-Libi appear. In 2002, the C.I.A., under an expanded policy of extraordinary rendition, turned Libi over to Egypt to be brutalized. Under duress, Libi falsely linked Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s alleged biochemical-weapons program in Iraq. In February, 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an influential speech in which he made the case for going to war against Iraq and prominently cited this evidence.”
Notice the sleight of hand here: “many false confessions” were given under “torturous pressure.” Yet Mayer does not produce one single example of “false confessions” given under “torturous pressure” by the CIA. According to her own account, the individual she cites was questioned not by the CIA, but rather by a foreign government under the extraordinary-rendition program pioneered by the Clinton administration.
Moreover, Mayer leads the reader to falsely conclude that I defend such renditions to foreign intelligence services. The opposite is true. Again, she must have missed the passage where I vigorously criticize outsourcing interrogations to foreign governments–precisely because the U.S. cannot guarantee either the humane treatment of the individual or the quality of the intelligence produced: “The problem with outsourcing interrogations is that doing so is much less effective than doing it ourselves. When the CIA interrogates a captured terrorist they follow strict rules. . . . When interrogations are outsourced, America is dependent on the competence and effectiveness of the foreign intelligence service that is interrogating the terrorist–which is almost certainly less competent and effective than our own interrogators would be” (pp. 333–334).
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration decided that the questioning of the highest-value terrorists was too important to outsource. That is why the president created a program that would allow the CIA to conduct interrogations of senior al-Qaeda leaders itself. Now the Obama administration has eliminated that CIA capability and resumed America’s reliance on outsourcing terrorist interrogations to foreign governments. For example, the highest-ranking Taliban leader ever captured, Mullah Baradar, was taken into custody earlier this year. He is not being interrogated by the United States; he is being interrogated by Pakistan–a country where torture is widespread, and whose intelligence service is not required to follow the Army Field Manual.
Mayer also contradicts herself. For example, she claims that General Hayden and Admiral McConnell are unreliable sources for my book–but she can’t seem to decide why. At one point, she says their testimony is questionable because both were “key architects and implementers” of the CIA interrogation program. But later she dismisses McConnell’s assessments of the program by saying that he “retired as director of the National Security Administration [sic] in 1996 and did not rejoin the government until 2007.” Well, which is it? Was McConnell a “key architect and implementer” or an uninformed retiree who “missed a few developments during his time in the private sector”?
In fact, McConnell and Hayden are exceedingly reliable witnesses precisely because neither was in charge when the interrogation program was created. They did not have a personal stake in defending the techniques. Each conducted an impartial assessment of the necessity and effectiveness of the CIA program (McConnell, I explain in the book, started out deeply skeptical). Both concluded that enhanced interrogations had saved lives and were necessary for the security of our country.
Mayer spends a great deal of time laying the blame for 9/11 at the feet of the Bush administration, and chastises McConnell for his statement that we knew “virtually nothing” about the terrorists who attacked us. Was McConnell unaware, she asks condescendingly, of “bin Laden’s declaration of war on America in 1996 and his 1998 indictment in New York”? This is sophistry designed to distract readers from McConnell’s entirely correct point: We knew “virtually nothing” about the KSM network that had carried out the attacks on New York and Washington. We did not know that KSM was the operational commander of al-Qaeda or the mastermind of 9/11. We did not know who his key accomplices were or what follow-on attacks they had set in motion.
Many books have been written explaining the intelligence failures that led to 9/11 (including the 9/11 Commission Report, which relied heavily on the interrogation reports of CIA detainees). The purpose of my book is not to rehash this history, but to explain what the CIA did about it–how the agency began to capture and detain senior al-Qaeda leaders, starting with Abu Zubaydah, and fill in those gaps in our knowledge. Information from CIA detainees led directly to the capture of dozens of terrorist operatives–including KSM, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Wallid bin Attash, Dhiren Barot, Sayfullah Paracha, Uzair Paracha, Mohd Farik bin Amin, Bashir bin Lap, Riduan Isomuddin, Rusman Gunawan, and the 14 members of a previously unknown cell (the Ghuraba Cell) that was hiding out in Karachi. The capture of these dangerous terrorists led to the disruption of terrorist attacks they were planning. Mayer presents no evidence to dispute any of this.
She does, however, dispute my claim that once the CIA took over terrorist interrogations, al-Qaeda failed to carry out another attack on the American homeland or U.S. interests abroad. While acknowledging that we did not suffer another attack on American soil, Mayer points to a string of attacks abroad–including hotel bombings that primarily targeted foreign nationals, the assassination of a USAID official, minor attacks outside the U.S. consulate in Karachi, and al-Qaeda engagements with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her list borders on the absurd. She includes attacks that (a) were not carried out by al-Qaeda and (b) did not target Americans (for example, she cites a 2004 attack on the Hilton Hotel in Taba, Egypt, that was carried out by Palestinian extremists targeting Israeli tourists). And citing engagements with enemy forces in combat zones (“In Iraq, the al-Qaeda faction led by Abu Mussab al Zarqawi killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers”) is patently ridiculous. Obviously when U.S. armed forces invade a country and engage al-Qaeda fighters in combat, there will be counterattacks and casualties. This is a straw man.
My point was that before the CIA began interrogating high-value terrorists, al-Qaeda was on the offensive, carrying out increasingly audacious and deadly attacks–from bombings of our embassies in East Africa, to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and ultimately the attacks of 9/11. After the CIA began interrogating high-value terrorists, al-Qaeda did not succeed in carrying out any attacks of a similar scale against American interests at home or abroad. Assassinations and battles in combat zones have led to tragic deaths, but they are not the equivalent of blowing up two U.S. embassies or flying airplanes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Finally, while Mayer challenges the accuracy of my book, she fails to address the evidence I present in Courting Disaster that her own book contains an entirely false account of the writing of President Bush’s 2006 speech on the interrogation program. Mayer dismisses the issue with a parenthetical aside: “(My own history of the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies, ‘The Dark Side,’ mentions this speech, and says that it supplanted a different version, prepared by Administration officials who disapproved of the interrogation program; Thiessen, in his book, disputes my repoFFirrting, insisting that although ‘many edits’ were suggested by critics of abusive tactics, there was ‘no rival draft.’)”
I did more than dispute her reporting; I caught her in a glaring error. In The Dark Side, Mayer writes: “It turned out the speech went through many drafts. An earlier version had included a clarion-like call to close down the CIA’s secret prison program for good. This had survived edits and rewrites until Vice President Cheney held a short, private meeting with President Bush. Afterward, the President made no more promises to end America’s experiment with secret detention.”
I was the author of that speech. It went through 16 drafts, all of which I wrote, and not one included “a clarion-like call to close down the CIA’s secret prison program for good.” Such a call had not “survived edits and rewrites”–it was never there in the first place. The purpose from the beginning was to save the CIA program, not close it down. This was communicated to me by the president, the national security advisor, the CIA director, the director of national intelligence, the attorney general, and other senior officials. Mayer’s account is untrue.
As I was writing Courting Disaster, I reached out to Mayer and other critics of CIA interrogations. I was particularly interested in learning from her just where she got this fictional account of the 2006 speech. Mayer insisted our conversation be off the record, but she did tell me on the record that she was referring to a “rival draft.” I explained to her there was no “rival draft.” She insisted there was, telling me: “Top administration foreign policy officials, including the secretary of state, backed a fully finished draft that called for the secret detention system to be closed.” The rival draft was “circulated in the White House,” she said, but was “killed in Vice President Cheney’s office” before I saw it.
I asked former national security adviser Steve Hadley–who would have seen any speech draft “circulated in the White House”–if he knew of a rival draft of the speech. He did not. Neither did former deputy national security adviser J. D. Crouch, who ran the entire interagency process in preparation for the speech. Neither did former CIA director Mike Hayden. Neither did former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (who Mayer claims backed the “rival draft”). And, most interesting of all, neither did former State Department legal adviser John Bellinger, the purported author of the “rival draft.”
I have no doubt some source showed Mayer a document which contained that person’s vision of what the president’s speech ought to say. But none of the senior officials involved in the editing of the speech knew of a “rival draft.” Mayer’s account, delivered in her book with such assured confidence, is flat wrong.
This error gets to a deeper problem with Mayer’s reporting on CIA interrogations. She is largely dependent on sources who were opposed to the president’s policy or were on the periphery of the CIA interrogation program. By depending on such sources, she got this story wrong. And if her account of the writing of a presidential speech was so defective, how can we trust her accounts of what supposedly happened in CIA black sites thousands of miles away?
Indeed, this is the reason why Mayer and others on the left are attacking my book: I have brought facts to the table, information that undermines the torture narrative they have made careers of spinning. For years, critics like Mayer could level any unfounded accusation they wanted against the CIA, confident that those who could challenge them were powerless to respond–because the answers were classified. But then Barack Obama declassified reams of documents revealing the secrets of the CIA program. He did enormous damage to our national security, but he also liberated those of us familiar with the intelligence on CIA interrogations to speak out. As a result, Mayer is no longer free to make baseless accusations without challenge or consequence.
No wonder she’s upset.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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