Almost everything people have heard about the CIA's use of torture in its interrogation program is untrue, said Marc Thiessen, former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, speaking on campus Oct. 27.
Thiessen, an author and commentator who was recently named one of the "100 most influential conservatives in America" by the Daily Telegraph, defended the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding in the "war on terror." By banning these techniques, he claimed, the Obama administration has put the United States "in greater danger of another terrorist attack."
As a speechwriter for Bush, Thiessen had access to top-secret CIA information. The details they provided, he said, were so sensitive that he once had to draft a speech in a "secret facility."
"Contrary to what you've been told," Thiessen said, "the United States did not use the same interrogation techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, Imperial Japan, the Khmer Rouge or Nazi Germany. No one was ever waterboarded at Guantanamo Bay. In fact, no one at Guantanamo Bay was ever subjected to enhanced interrogation of any kind. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [(KSM), an al-Qaeda member who masterminded several attacks including 9/11] was not waterboarded 183 times. Waterboarding as practiced by the CIA is not torture."
Thiessen used KSM to demonstrate why he believes "enhanced interrogation techniques" are necessary. When CIA interrogators first asked Mohammed about his plans for new attacks, he said, KSM gave only a brief, ominous reply: "Soon you will know." Pressed further, he said that he would tell them everything when he got to New York and saw his lawyer.
"If we had given him that lawyer," Thiessen said, "if we had told KSM you have the right to remain silent, there would very likely be craters in the ground in London, Djibouti, Karachi and Los Angeles."
But according to Thiessen, "enhanced interrogation techniques" transformed the uncooperative captive into an "al Qaeda management consultant" who listed details of al Qaeda's operations, from how the organization picks targets to its methods of attack. "He even gave his CIA interrogators quizzes at the start of every session to see if they were paying attention in the last class," Thiessen said.
Obtaining intelligence through interrogation, he explained, is crucial to efforts to fight terror. In previous wars, the Army used spy satellites to observe foreign armies. But today's terrorists can't be tracked in this way. Since only a few people know their plans, interrogation is often the only way to gain access to this critical information, Thiessen claimed.
Many critics argue that interrogations don't work because terrorists will say anything their questioners want to hear to make the "technique" stop. But according to Thiessen, "enhanced interrogation was never used to gain intelligence. It was used to gain cooperation."
He said that CIA interrogators would apply the techniques, beginning with the least coercive (only three people, including KSM, "made it up to waterboarding") while asking questions they already knew the answers to.
"The only way to get them to stop was to tell the truth," Thiessen said. "In most cases, [enhanced interrogation] lasted a couple days. In KSM's case, three weeks. He was tough."
Moreover, he said, CIA officials have all voluntarily subjected themselves to waterboarding and other such techniques during training -- as have several journalists.
"If you're willing to try it to see what it feels like, it's not torture," Thiessen said.
His visit to campus was sponsored by the Cornell Republicans.
Elisabeth Rosen '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.