Why Self-Respecting Editors Should Be Embarassed to Publish Marc Thiessen

In a recent Slate piece, a former senior military interrogator eviscerated Marc Thiessen’s book Courting Disaster, pointing out errors, omissions, and arguments so egregiously flawed that it’s a wonder their author is asked to recycle them at National Review and The Washington Post.

Consider the excerpt below. In two short paragraphs, assertions core to Mr. Thiessen’s arguments are handily rebutted:

Thiessen promulgates a theory that Islamic extremists are uniquely deserving of torture because they are doctrinally obligated to resist cooperating, after which they may disclose information. Of course this isn’t unique to Islamic extremists. The U.S. military’s own Code of Conduct and the resistance training given American soldiers impose the exact same requirements. Article V, pertaining to interrogations states: I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. Moreover, regardless of our enemy’s resistance philosophy, we have legal obligations to treat them humanely. If an American soldier is captured, would we want his obligation to resist turned into a justification that allows him to be water-boarded into cooperating?
Thiessen also asserts that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not rendered ineffective after his capture (and was still an active combatant) because he had knowledge of future attacks. The CIA was thus justified in torturing him. But every captured enemy has information of future plans or other valuable information about capabilities. Thiessen’s justification could be used to water-board everyone we capture. The standard for detainee treatment is not a sliding scale based on a particular captive’s knowledge. It’s a constant based on law and our principles.

It is depressing that arguments this poor actually advanced Mr. Thiessen’s career in journalism. The readers who propelled him onto the New York Times bestseller list can be forgiven if they’re not knowledgeable about United States law, the military code of conduct, or devastating counterarguments that require a bit of outside knowledge. But the editors who willingly publish this man again and again, despite the poor quality of his work and his inability to answer his strongest critics, are being negligent and unprofessional.

In his latest effort at The Washington Post, Mr. Thiessen defends Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol, and Keep America Safe in its smear campaign against Justice Department lawyers who did pro-bono work representing War on Terrorism detainees — their ad campaign labeled these lawyers “The Al Qaeda Seven.”

Mr. Thiessen writes:

Where was the moral outrage when fine lawyers like John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Jim Haynes, Steve Bradbury and others came under vicious personal attack? Their critics did not demand simple transparency; they demanded heads. They called these individuals “war criminals” and sought to have them fired, disbarred, impeached and even jailed. Where were the defenders of the “al-Qaeda seven” when a Spanish judge tried to indict the “Bush six”? Philippe Sands, author of the “Torture Team,” crowed: “This is the end of these people’s professional reputations!” I don’t recall anyone accusing him of “shameful” personal attacks.
The standard today seems to be that you can say or do anything when it comes to the Bush lawyers who defended America against the terrorists. But if you publish an Internet ad or ask legitimate questions about Obama administration lawyers who defended America’s terrorist enemies, you are engaged in a McCarthyite witch hunt.

It is perfectly fine for the Washington Post to publish someone who argues that Bush Administration lawyers were unfairly attacked, or that the Keep America Safe campaign is justified — both views I vociferously contest, by the way — but are its readers well served by reading an author who pretends that it is somehow inherently inconsistent or hypocritical to be critical of John Yoo for the legal opinions he issued, and simultaneously defend Obama Administration lawyers who represented unsavory clients?

It is obviously spurious to frame things that way. It intentionally muddies the debate for rhetorical advantage. Yet the Washington Post chooses to cover this issue on its opinion pages by allocating space to a man who takes that most unhelpful approach. On highly controversial issues, I’ll gladly defend editors who publish writing I disagree with, and opinions I abhor, but precisely because this issues are so serious, it is important that those who grapple with them can at least offer arguments that aren’t laughably illogical or deliberately obfuscatory.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald expands on my critique of the latest Marc Thiessen column in The Washington Post, noting logical errors and journalistic shortcomings.

UPDATE II: Julian Sanchez has worthwhile thoughts on this subject.