Michael Mukasey Doubles Down on the Sophism

The most interesting aspect of Michael Mukasey’s retort to John McCain’s op-ed calling him a liar is not the content–that’s the same old trite sophism–but rather the publication details of it.

It appears not under Mukasey’s byline, but under Dick Cheney’s speech-writer’s byline, complete with a picture. And when he introduces Mukasey’s words, Marc Thiessen doesn’t use any of those trappings of grammar or publication we normally use to indicate direct quotations from others, like quotation marks or a blockquote. Rather, Thiessen just says “here is his statement:” and then launches right into “Senator McCain described as “false” my statement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed broke under harsh interrogation…”

The seamlessness between Thiessen and Mukasey speaking in the first person all has the wonderful effect of emphasizing that Mukasey’s original statement was simply another product of Dick Cheney’s torture apologist PR campaign. In a bid to salvage the moral capitulations Mukasey made to become Attorney General, he now speaks in the voice of Dick Cheney’s flack.

And note the rather incredible ethical lapse here? McCain’s op-ed, remember, was published in the WaPo, the same paper Mukasey–I mean Thiessen’s–response is in. At current count, McCain’s op-ed has 778 Tweets and 5837 recommendations–22 times as many recommendations as Thiessen’s own op-ed on torture published two days earlier. [Update: And Greg Sargent did a post on McCain’s Senate speech, which itself has 6661 recommends at this point.] Whether McCain’s op-ed made Fred Hiatt vomit or not, it has brought the WaPo a great deal of traffic and attention, precisely what newspapers generally like to do with their op-ed pages. Generate controversy, influence debate, get traffic.

But Thiessen didn’t link McCain’s op-ed! He prevented the WaPo from enjoying the stickiness that a heated debate conducted within its own pages can give.

Of course, he also made it a lot more difficult for his–um, I mean Mukasey’s–readers to compare Mukasey’s rebuttal with McCain’s own op-ed. Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–must hope that readers don’t see that McCain’s claim had everything to do with whether torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to Osama bin Laden, whereas Thiessen’s–um, I mean Mukasey’s rebuttal–clings to KSM’s use of a nickname that the US already knew. Or maybe Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–didn’t want his readers to know that KSM lied under torture and actually hindered the hunt for OBL, even after Thiessen’s–um, I mean Mukasey’s–cherished torture was used.

Or maybe Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–is hiding the much more powerful argument McCain made (which, as Amy Davidson lays out, was unfortunately diminished by McCain’s call for no prosecutions), in which McCain talks about the moral imperative not to torture.

As we debate how the United States can best influence the course of the Arab Spring, can’t we all agree that the most obvious thing we can do is stand as an example of a nation that holds an individual’s human rights as superior to the will of the majority or the wishes of government? Individuals might forfeit their life as punishment for breaking laws, but even then, as recognized in our Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, they are still entitled to respect for their basic human dignity, even if they have denied that respect to others.

All of these arguments have the force of right, but they are beside the most important point. Ultimately, this is more than a utilitarian debate. This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.

You see, this is all about Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–engaging in another round of sophism, of setting facts loose in a haze of illogical statements to confuse readers. To allow readers to see a clear assertion that torture violates America’s claims to moral standing might clarify what Thiessen and those he speaks for are trying so desperately to muddle.

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. Cynthia Kouril says:

    What is it with these people? Who in their right mind defends torture?

    I simply don’t get it. Nt nly is it wrong in it’s own right. It doesn’t work AND it destroys whatever international goodwill their might be for the US and recruits more jihadists.

    It is the single most counterproductive “tool” available.

    Only fool would use it, or a coward trying to exercise his own fears.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        I like the presentation that makes it impossible to tell which voice is speaking, Thiessen’s or Mukasey’s, though both are probable versions of the same ventriloquist – Big Dick.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      It’s the natural pairing with government secrecy – endless, illegal retribution of perversely biblical proportions for thine enemies. They build on each other. As Jeff Kaye says, it’s not about the facts or compiling a case to submit to a court, which means it’s not about national security or criminal justice. It’s about having the power to torture and to get away with it, and a willingness to misuse the false facts elicited through torture to intimidate and gain greater power.

  2. orionATL says:

    an excellent operational definition:

    “…sophism, …setting facts loose in a haze of illogical statements to confuse readers.”

    emptywheel continues:

    “To allow readers to see a clear assertion that torture violates America’s claims to moral standing might clarify what Thiessen and those he speaks for are trying so desperately to muddle…”

  3. radiofreewill says:

    Eight years of the time-bomb ticking thunders like a chorus against Mukasey’s politically-loyal panic-logic rationale being used to link KSM’s torture to bin Laden’s death – in order to endorse what is perennially considered to be morally unjustifiable…

    Mukasey needs to do a better, more credible, job of explaining his thought processes if he really wants us to know just where he falls between Orwell and Jackson on the question of State morality.

    Because, at this point, with the clarity coming from the settling of currently known facts, one would have to say that the torture apologist’s argument is not standing the test of time…

    …and, therefore, stirring the mud through Thiessen is only postponing the inevitable revelation…of the rightness of the perennial wisdom.

  4. PeasantParty says:

    …and, therefore, stirring the mud through Thiessen is only postponing the inevitable revelation…of the rightness of the perennial wisdom

    I was just going to say that Thiessen has just tortured Mukasey via print, but I think you said it well.

  5. ThingsComeUndone says:

    The most interesting aspect of Michael Mukasey’s retort to John McCain’s op-ed calling him a liar is not the content–that’s the same old trite sophism–but rather the publication details of it

    The most interesting thing is this is doing more to improve my opinion of Jon McCain than anything he did in his run for the Presidency.
    If only a Dem could fight against the idea Torture caught Ossama or torture works.
    Not that torture even if it did work and did not turn whole populations against us should ever be used.
    Would DiCk Cheney be in favor of child porn if that worked to get answers from terrorists?

  6. BoxTurtle says:

    And the hell of it is, nobody outside of FDL and Cheney, Inc is really paying attention.

    It sometimes frustrates me that the average person doesn’t know anything about this. Worse, as long as it’s only happening to scary brown moslems, they don’t generally care.

    Boxturtle (“Moslems got civil rights?!?” – Crazy GOP neighbor)

  7. ThingsComeUndone says:

    The seamlessness between Thiessen and Mukasey speaking in the first person all has the wonderful effect of emphasizing that Mukasey’s original statement was simply another product of Dick Cheney’s torture apologist PR campaign. In a bid to salvage the moral capitulations Mukasey made to become Attorney General, he now speaks in the voice of Dick Cheney’s flack.

    My bold Dick’s PR campaign is a part of Karl Rove’s rehab Bush’s PR campaign. Their plan is as always have all the GOPers all talk about the same issues, at the same time and they all say the same thing.
    The Goat with a Thousand Young has only one mad voice but when you hear his message from a thousand channels each time phrased a little different then you start watching Fox News and serving the Great Old Ones.

  8. ThingsComeUndone says:

    And note the rather incredible ethical lapse here? McCain’s op-ed, remember, was published in the WaPo, the same paper Mukasey–I mean Thiessen’s–response is in. At current count, McCain’s op-ed has 778 Tweets and 5837 recommendations–22 times as many recommendations as Thiessen’s own op-ed on torture published two days earlier. Whether McCain’s op-ed made Fred Hiatt vomit or not, it has brought the WaPo a great deal of traffic and attention, precisely what newspapers generally like to do with their op-ed pages. Generate controversy, influence debate, get traffic.

    But Thiessen didn’t link McCain’s op-ed! He prevented the WaPo from enjoying the stickiness that a heated debate conducted within its own pages can give.

    Stock holders will not be happy nor advertisers the Left however now has more evidence the Media is Right.

  9. ThingsComeUndone says:

    You see, this is all about Thiessen–um, I mean Mukasey–engaging in another round of sophism, of setting facts loose in a haze of illogical statements to confuse readers. To allow readers to see a clear assertion that torture violates America’s claims to moral standing might clarify what Thiessen and those he speaks for are trying so desperately to muddle.

    Is he Catholic I seem to recall this very same strategy reading Catholic attempts to logically prove the existence of God.

  10. ChePasa says:

    Torture “works” for producing false information and especially for producing false confessions. That’s why torture states throughout history have used it and defended its use no matter what.

    False information and false confessions are potentially very useful to torture states (recall how false information and confessions from tortured detainees were routinely used to scare the crap out of Americans subsequent to the 9/11 attacks — scare them and keep them tame and submissive for what was to come.)

    The United States and its local jurisdictions have never been blameless when it comes to torture, just more dishonest about it than many others. By saying over and over again that “We don’t torture” and “Torture is not an American Value,” officials are being dishonest. American authority has used various forms of torture throughout its history. American authority still uses various forms of torture routinely, at home and abroad, especially in the domestic prison-industrial system.

    Mukasey and the others defend the use of torture to protect themselves from prosecution, of course, but more to the point, they are defending practices that have a long and dishonorable history within United States government and its many subdivisions. They know this defense is widely popular, so there’s no political loss in defending torture.

    The moral/legal question rarely enters into the discussion, only the “effectiveness” of the “techniques.”

    When we acknowledge that torture is effective in extracting false confessions and false information — and that is what the authorities who use torture want from their tortured captives — and then relentlessly hammer the immorality and illegality of torture along with its inability to produce reliable truthful information/confessions, we might get closer to putting an end to the practice.

    It will never not be a struggle, however, because false confessions and information are so useful for those in power.

    • onitgoes says:

      You make some very very good points, and thanks for that “take” on the USA’s long & sordid history of torture both domestically & globally. I quite agree that it’s either ridiculous or naive to think that the USA hasn’t used torture prior to 9/11/2001. We have, often, although sometimes it has been “outsourced” to other nations whose scruples, shall we say, are more “flexible” than ours.

      Those that torture – whether within the boundaries of our nation, or elsewhere – will “defend” it by saying that: 1) it’s needed, 2) it works, and 3) it makes citizens “safe,” so STFU.

      Of course, none of the above is true, but I do believe that torture has become so ingrained in how humanity operates, that it’s hard for those in power to step away from it. This is not an excuse for it; just an observation. Torture has been ongoing probably almost since the beginning of mankind.

      I guess what’s mostly changed is the rather “neat” way that the rightwing has slipped in the use of torture as part of their panoply of “tricks,” lulling ignorant/naive/gullible/stupid/asleep citizens into the notion that torture works, is “ok,” and is “American” and “needed.” Utilizing popular tv shows & movies helps cement these notions, and I have little doubt (but no proof) that shows like “24,” which consistently showed torture “working” & working very quickly, were no accident.

      So Mukasey makes his feelings known in order to avoid prosecution or jail, but also to push forward this narrative that torture is needed, works, and furthermore, will continue.

      I think part of the reason why torture is so beloved by the likes of Cheney is also the value of how “intimidating” the notion of torture is. And mainly the intimidation is aimed at US citizens. This, too, could happen to you…. and it IS happening, as we see in the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning.

  11. onitgoes says:

    Most interesting and thanks for the link and analysis. Same old, same old, it would seem. McCain actually spoke the truth, for a change (don’t hold yer breath, though, bc tomorrow McCain will flip-flop back to lying for the corporations/MIC), and I guess it rattled Dick Chaney’s cage.

    So out flies Dick Cheney’s speech-writer, Marc Theissen, to dis McCain, and that’s that. Dick Cheney, standing up on his piggy trotters, is saying now: No, no barnyard flock: what I really said was, Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better! Yep got it: Torture is great, folks, even though it’s morally reprehnsible, and furthermore, it doesn’t work.

    Got it.

    As Boxturtle said @9: too bad it’s only us dfh’s at FDL & Dick Cheney who’s paying any attention. The rest of the country??? zzzzzzzzzzz, asleep at the wheel & could care LESS as usual.

  12. rmwarnick says:

    A long time ago, Mukasey promised to get back to us with his opinion after he finished researching the question of whether waterboarding is a means of torture. Are we still waiting for that answer?

  13. chitowner says:

    Mukasey sold his soul after his first day of confirmation hearings. His answers to questions on day one pleased Dems, but apparently offended Bush/Cheney. On day two he contradicted answers to questions he gave on day one. He had a decent judicial reputation till then. Now he’s just an old, discredited, neo-con fart without a soul.

  14. Jeff Kaye says:

    Um, McCain would have my approval in this situation if he made clear that he opposes the torture the United States conducts RIGHT NOW. Instead, he lauds the motives of the torturers, and is against holding them accountable. He also concentrates his fire on the EITs and especially waterboarding, but is noticeably silent on the current use of isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, drugs, and stress positions and exploitation of fears on CURRENT prisoners held by the U.S. (not to mention the policy of indefinite detention).

    By making this about whether or not one supported torture on KSM, or what the results of the Bush-era program really were, distracts, or rather misdirects the discussion from the fact that torture is still used by the United States, and that attempts to even find out about this torture are obstructed by the Obama administration and its DoJ.

    Let me repeat what ChePasa said @14, since it so nicely summarizes what I have been researching and writing about for some time now:

    When we acknowledge that torture is effective in extracting false confessions and false information — and that is what the authorities who use torture want from their tortured captives — and then relentlessly hammer the immorality and illegality of torture along with its inability to produce reliable truthful information/confessions, we might get closer to putting an end to the practice.

    It will never not be a struggle, however, because false confessions and information are so useful for those in power.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      That’s Maverick John speaking out of both sides of his mouth: condemning torture as wrong and ineffective, but defending the government and the apparatchiks that do it. He and Joe Lieberman have made that model behavior for a legislator.

      The “debate” about torture is like the debate about “intelligent design”. It masks an obvious wrong, a new torture industry involving designing it, doing it, advocating and defending it, hiding it, and normalizing what was once and still is outrageous conduct.

      The debate shifts the focus from who should go to jail, when and for how long, to “how effective” is it? That protects the torturers, certainly. Whatever the statute of limitation on torture, where it caused a death, it is a wrongful one; if murder, there’s no statute of limitation here or abroad. The potential liability of the powerful is endless; they want that risk done away with, buried at sea or in the Guantanamo sands.

      Its aim is political, not legal or security related. Having the debate itself is a win. As with the intelligent design movement, it creates the illusion that there is a valid question not yet answered, around which we have insufficient facts or consensus.

      Should we not have tried it to save ourselves? Who knew it would always provide false or hopelessly clouded facts? Shouldn’t we keep it as a necessary weapon in the arsenal of democracy? Isn’t the question fine tuning it? Or is the problem really those who leak information about it, the small part of the press that writes about it, and the few who read and believe their stories?

      It is as pernicious a development as the asset stripping, ethic-less business models now dominating Wall Street and America board rooms; as corrupt as giving “free speech” to corporations and anonymity for their purchase of governments and university departments; as soul-robbing as the endless security theater we endure on phones, the Internet, at airports; as lethal as the routine misuse of Tasers on the unarmed, the shackled, the weak, those with the temerity to ask what did I do, officer.

    • Phoenix Woman says:

      That’s what makes Thiessen/Mukasey’s piece so repulsive.

      Marcy noted yesterday that McCain’s editorial was by no means perfect. Yet it was enough of a threat to the GOP party line that torture is good, that Cheney/Mukasey sicced their favorite mouthpiece on McCain without hesitating.