Marc Thiessen, You Are My Piñata

Normally, Marc Thiessen’s torture apologies aren’t worth my time. But seeing as how I didn’t whack any piñatas on Cinco de Mayo, why not Thiessen’s latest, in which he claims those who deny CIA interrogations played a part in nabbing bin Laden are the latest birthers?

Note the formulation, though: Thiessen’s not talking about torture. He’s talking about CIA interrogations generally, even while he links to a Sully post that in turn links to me (thanks Sully!). Sully was explicitly talking about torture, not interrogations generally, and I was talking specifically about waterboarding, and from that Thiessen concludes we deny CIA interrogations had any role in nabbing OBL.

What’s the matter, Marc? Is your shifting of the debate indication you know you’ve lost the torture debate?

And boy does he lose that debate. Thiessen spends much of his column talking about people whose interrogations led to other plots, some of them totally debunked even within the documents Thiessen quotes. About the only piece he really connects to OBL is this interpretation of the intelligence Abu Faraj al-Libi contributed.

Take, for example, the file on Abu Faraj al-Libi — one of several CIA detainees who helped lead the agency to bin Laden’s courier. The document describes Abu Faraj as the “communications gateway” to bin Laden who once in custody “reported on al-Qai’das methods for choosing and employing couriers, as well as preferred communications means.” Based on intelligence obtained from Abu Faraj and other CIA detainees, it states that “in July 2003, [Abu Faraj] received a letter from UBL’s designated courier” (to whom he referred by a false name, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan) in which “UBL stated [Abu Faraj] would be the official messenger between UBL and others in Pakistan.” The file also notes a vital piece of intelligence: To better carry out his new duties “in mid-2003, [Abu Faraj] moved his family to Abbottabad” — the city where bin Laden eventually met his end — “and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar.” And the file reveals that “in mid-April 2005, [Abu Faraj] began arranging for a store front to be used as a meeting place and drop point for messages he wanted to exchange” with bin Laden’s courier and was captured while waiting to meet him.

So to summarize Thiessen’s spin of how al-Libi helped nab OBL:

  • Al-Libi told the CIA that at a time when he was a key messenger for OBL, he had been in Abottabad
  • Al-Libi told the CIA how important couriers were
  • Al-Libi managed to hide the name of the all-important courier through whom we eventually found OBL, even under torture

Okay, Marc, so what did the CIA do with that intelligence? As Jose Rodriguez (who was head of Clandestine Services at the time) helpfully explained, they concluded from al-Libi’s interrogation that OBL was just a figurehead.

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

And later that same year, the CIA shut down its dedicated hunt for OBL.

The Central Intelligence Agency has closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, intelligence officials confirmed Monday.

The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the officials said.

The decision is a milestone for the agency, which formed the unit before Osama bin Laden became a household name and bolstered its ranks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush pledged to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice “dead or alive.”

The realignment reflects a view that Al Qaeda is no longer as hierarchical as it once was, intelligence officials said, and a growing concern about Qaeda-inspired groups that have begun carrying out attacks independent of Mr. bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It wasn’t until the intelligence community got the courier’s real identity, and with it traced him back to Abbottabad–neither of which (according to reports thus far) came from al-Libi–that the intelligence community managed to track the courier in Abbottabad and in turn to OBL.

Now, as even the little bit I wrote that was quoted in Sully’s post made clear (so Thiessen presumably read it), the point I’m making is not that CIA interrogations didn’t yield information and–just as importantly–unbelievable denials–that ultimately helped lead to OBL. Rather, that either torture didn’t do as promised (that is, ensure we got all the important information that might lead to OBL’s location quickly) or the torturers were unable to understand the intelligence they were getting and so the intelligence was not used for years after we got it. Here’s what Sully quoted from me.

We can conclude that either KSM shielded the courier’s identity entirely until close to 2007, or he told his interrogators that there was a courier who might be protecting bin Laden early in his detention but they were never able to force him to give the courier’s true name or his location, at least not until three or four years after the waterboarding of KSM ended. That’s either a sign of the rank incompetence of KSM’s interrogators (that is, that they missed the significance of a courier protecting OBL), or a sign he was able to withstand whatever treatment they used with him.

And Thiessen’s own argument backs that up! According to his own argument, al-Libi gave us two key pieces of information, lied about another, and … the CIA responded by deprioritizing their hunt.

This, apparently, is Thiessen’s idea of a success!

And so, while those of us who note how torture stalled the hunt for OBL and didn’t deliver as promised note that fact, Thiessen sits at the WaPo proclaiming misunderstood leads and detainee lies a sign of success.

Alas, thwacking Thiessen’s nonsense won’t do a damn bit of good. Like torture, I guess, piñata thwacking never seems to work with dead-enders like Thiessen.

(Piñata image by peasap, used under Creative Commons license)

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. Phoenix Woman says:

    Alas, thwacking Thiessen’s nonsense won’t do a damn bit of good. Like torture, I guess, piñata thwacking never seems to work with dead-enders like Thiessen.

    It’d do a lot more good if the same “mainstream” corporate press that drooled for two years over the non-scandal of Obama’s birth certificate could be made to stop amplifying right-wing fauxgates like the birth-cert bullshit and instead tout pieces like yours, EW. But they’ll never go after Thiessen, unless it’s to make him a job offer.

    • ottogrendel says:

      That’s the great media trick: Foment nonsense for profit and then pretend you had nothing to do with it. The working definition for this stunt is “journalistic objectivity and integrity.” Propaganda works best if the propagandists are not seen as such, if they can be seen to be impartially above the fray.

      • alabama says:

        Good point, ottogrendel, but trusting “those in charge” of exactly what? The WaPo always tells us to trust someone or other in power, and this is not an incoherence on their part (certainly not a surprise). But the WaPo’s editors also expect our trust in their editorial judgment–always arguing, as in the first case, “from authority”. This is also hardly a surprise, but always a fragile move, since editorial credibility rests, if not on a positive image of clarity, on a negative image of seeming not to be clueless (no one can prove a negative).

        If the WaPo editors were really to want credibility, they would fire the hapless Thiessen right away, ordering up another, clear-headed, flack from the Hoover Institute. Since this surely won’t occur, I’ll have to assume at least one of the following points:

        (1.) that no such replacement can be found;

        (2.) that the editors themselves too are incoherent to understand the problem, even when pointed out;

        (3.) that the WaPo simply cannot afford to pay a fitter replacement;

        (4.) that Thiessen services the ownership of WaPo in other, indispensable ways…. And since I cannot yet believe the first three points, I’ll have to go with the fourth (Wonkette could be helpful here).

        It’s a confusion of categories are their part: we “expect the double-talk from the politicians, and clear interpretations, true or false, from the media). Woodward, for one, surely knows this, and I look forward someday to reading a racy best-seller entitled All The Publisher’s Men .

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nicely hoist on his own petard, blunt as it is. One nit:

    Thiessen sits [insists?] that the WaPo proclaiming misunderstood leads

  3. scribe says:

    These fucktards (like Thiessen and Judy Miller) never quit, but it sure can be fun to whomp on their stupidity.

    But, more seriously, when (re)reading this Jose Rodriguez quote:

    “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

    I found myself thinking “but Howard Hughes did just fine for many years running his organization from a bunker atop a Vegas hotel. Even did a lot of work for the Defense Department and CIA. Through his couriers….”

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      Good one ;-)

      And:

      And so, while those of us who note how torture stalled the hunt for OBL and didn’t deliver as promised note that fact, Thiessen sits that the WaPo proclaiming misunderstood leads and detainee lies a sign of success.

      Indeed.
      If the torture was so wonderful then why did the FBI refuse to engage in it?
      And why did OBL get to hang out in a location well protected by Pakistani intel and military interests for so many years…?

      Saying that OBL used couriers is about like saying that a farmer in Iowa uses postage. To claim that the notion OBL used ‘couriers’ is somehow a deep, dark secret is vapid. To claim this was the Big Deep Secret obtained via torture is beyond tragic.

  4. rugger9 says:

    The fact that Rodriguez got it totally wrong on OBL means he was incompetent as well as criminal. Or, perhaps the Bushies got tired of potentially having the chance of OBL being available to be targeted, and needed an excuse to justify ignoring the threat, while keeping OBL as a bogeyman. I’m sure the fact the compound building and CIA section closure dates are, ahem, coincidentally close.

    Really, OBL was worthwhile as a bogeyman and nothing else for W, to be trotted out whenever he needed a poll bump. W had no interest in removing OBL from the picture, that’s why he kept letting him go and why he spirited the Bin Ladens out of the country when literally nothing else was flying after 9/11/01. So, in 2005 he closed the search section and wink-wink set up the agreement with the Pakistanis (building upon the existing agreement on targeting diaried elsewhere) to keep OBL there and not let him go anywhere. Of course with typical Bushie incompetence they also failed to ensure he was completely incommunicado as well. That’s probably why the courier was necessary.

    Somewhat OT, but DailyKos noted that the House GOP refuses even now to honor the work of SEAL Team 6, after ignoring the passing of the last WW1 vet. The GOP hates America, and everyone that has sacrificed for it and put themselves in harms way. Walter Reed was simply a symptom of GOP policy.

  5. Thus Blogged Anderson says:

    According to AP reporting on the “Frances” who kept insisting el-Masri was a bad guy, she was at Alec Station but went on to head a “Global Jihad unit” with much the same function.

    Anyone know about that “Global Jihad unit,” what agency it was under, and the lag b/t Alec Station’s closing and the GJU’s opening? Was there just a bureaucratic reshuffle, or did the GJU open only after Obama took office?

  6. alabama says:

    I just tried to read–tried to follow, to make sense of–Thiessen’s account of things and his argument (at WaPo). I tried three times and I failed. This is bizarre, because everything posted on this thread is perfectly clear… So how can anyone come up with a clear take on an incoherent, illiterate piece of writing? Infrared goggles, maybe?

    • tejanarusa says:

      So how can anyone come up with a clear take on an incoherent, illiterate piece of writing?

      My take? When you’re twisting and turning and torturing facts in order to make them fit your preconceived conclusion (on which your self-respect depends), you just end up with an incoherent piece of argument.

      And my comment: to me, this stupid conclusion of the Bushies, as described by Rodriguez, is the biggest piece of news of this whole story.All these years they’ve been telling us OBL was “just a figurehead, not really running AQ,” etc., etc., and they were WRONG!!

      And to me, it’s because they couldn’t conceive for themselves how you could run a world organization without email and telephones and probably Blackberries, ergo, OBL couldn’t do it, either.

      A failure of imagination, for one thing. A failure to understand your opponent, for another.

      If I were, say, the WaPo editor, that would be my headline, every day: Why Did Bush People Get OBL so Wrong?

      Yeah, I did say everything wrong today is Bush’s fault. Why would anyone question that??? (slight exaggeration, not that much)

      • ottogrendel says:

        Thanks for your angle on this, especially the part of failing to imagine an opponent who might operate in contrast to one’s technology-based MO.

        I suspect that the real point of Op Eds like this–and why coherence is of little importance–is to reinforce the meme that we should trust those who are in charge. Just keep saying it over and over no matter the evidence or turn of events.

  7. mzchief says:

    Torture Is for Liars” (DagBlog.Com, by Doctor Cleveland, May 8, 2011) like Marc Thiessen:

    The history of Rome contains more crime and violence than that of any other city in world history……the Romans were slipping into violence by a process of self-justification and once a nation or an individual has started down this particular slope, it is impossible to apply brakes. The Roman people were too unimaginative and short sighted to realize that once murder has been justified on grounds of expediency, it can become a habit, then a disease.

    (excerpt from “Moral Desensitization as in the ‘Fall of Rome’” by libbyliberal, May 7, 2011)

  8. mzchief says:

    By stark contrast, notice the role of torture in banksta/USG/MexicoG sponsored violence in Mexico but still there is large peaceful demonstration regarding the issues (RawStory.Com, video, May 9, 2011):

    As vicious criminal gangs battle the Mexican military and each other for the immense cash reserves produced by U.S. prohibition policies, the nation to America’s south has become increasingly concerned that fighting has begun to consume their whole society.

    But on Sunday, the people took a stand, amassing thousands in the streets of Mexico City for a loud and painful display of how they feel about the drug war. Responding to a call for protest by Javier Sicilia — a journalist who’s sons were tortured and killed by cartel members — they gathered to call on Mexican President Felipe Calderon to immediately fire his security minister and take steps to secure the nation.

    In this context, there is no attempt to “justify” torture. Everyone knows what it is and names it.

  9. ThingsComeUndone says:

    and from that Thiessen concludes we deny CIA interrogations had any role in nabbing OBL.

    10 years of waterboarding hmm after 10 years random chance probably had more to do with catching Ossama than water boarding.
    Do a rain dance in Death Valley for ten years and I bet it will rain at least once before the 10 years is up. However the fact we tortured or did a rain dance does not mean the torture or rain dance caused the events we wanted to happen to happen.
    Look at the recent Afghan jail break hundreds of prisoners I assume several were tortured but not one guy talked for months as the digging went on.
    If I was being water boarded I know I would be tempted to tell the guards about a jailbreak because that kind of information would get me home and probably get me some serious cash.
    But even under torture nobody talked.

  10. ThingsComeUndone says:

    We can conclude that either KSM shielded the courier’s identity entirely until close to 2007, or he told his interrogators that there was a courier who might be protecting bin Laden early in his detention but they were never able to force him to give the courier’s true name or his location, at least not until three or four years after the waterboarding of KSM ended. That’s either a sign of the rank incompetence of KSM’s interrogators (that is, that they missed the significance of a courier protecting OBL), or a sign he was able to withstand whatever treatment they used with him.

    My bold I’m betting inteligence obtained through other means than torture led the CIA to ask KSM some new different questions that shed further light on what he discussed earlier under torture but for some reason was never forth coming about.
    He apparently did mention something about the courier but either the CIA did not torture him enough (not very likely), the CIA did not understand the culture of KSM well enough to understand what was being told ( imagine Ossama torturing an American and not understanding that CandyMan in American slang means drug dealer maybe Arab slang for Trusted Courier is water delivery guy?
    Or maybe the CIA is making this stuff up to prove torture works?

  11. kspopulist says:

    can’t we assume, even if we can’t find proof yet, that they are being paid to support these attitudes toward torture? Yes, the prison industry, the mercenery need for torture, civilian chicken hawks that feel they might find a way to live out their sick-fantasy desires, all are backed by high-power corporate money. Isn’t this the world we live in today? If we go after the industry and take it down, the talking puppets would fall away, no?

    • kspopulist says:

      Thiessen is a fellow at the Hoover Institute like Ed Meese, he was spokesman for Jesse Helms before becoming speechwriter for Bush. Thiessen as a civilian writes a book that basically said that civilian Obama couldn’t be trusted with commander-in-chief status over the secret stuff. The difference is that Thiessen knows people. Obama did not, in his eyes, apparently.
      So far that’s not illegal but something else right?
      Musing along with this…
      Since the actual left supports minorities, gays, women, human rights and on the other hand the protected class supports privilege, big industry, centralized authority …
      it seems obvious to me that the ‘protections’ of torture support only those protected people, not all the people. Of course this is borne out by their public statements. Not illegal to say what you want, but can’t this divisive dichotomy be turned back on those who would protect themselves to the detriment of the majority of americans?
      Thiessen, Yoo, the Cheney’s, Rumsfeld. Wasn’t Dr Rice on the board of the Hoover Institute?

  12. ottogrendel says:

    Thiessen’s argument is that the “evidence” that CIA interrogations worked to capture OBL is “overwhelming” because folks at the CIA said so?

    “The evidence that CIA interrogations played a key role in the operation that got Osama bin Laden is overwhelming. Countless intelligence officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, have confirmed that detainees interrogated by the CIA provided information that helped lead us to bin Laden.”

  13. spanishinquisition says:

    So if OBL wasn’t a figurehead, when is the Patriot Act, FISA, indefinite detentions, assassinations, etc going to end?

    • ottogrendel says:

      When the supposed alien “other” is eradicated or converted (see Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” for the ideological blueprint), or when the US goes broke and self destructs in the attempt . . . ?

  14. RickMassimo says:

    Marc Thiessen was, broadly speaking, one of the people tasked with catching Osama bin Laden.

    He failed. He failed so badly he stopped trying.

    The black Muslim Kenyan socialist got him.

    Marc Thiessen writes for the Washington Post, and therefore must say something about this.

    That’s the entire explanation. All the rest, including Thiessen’s own words, is noise.