Former Bush Official Rips CNN's Amanpour on Waterboarding and Torture

Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and author of "Courting Disaster," blasted Christiane Amanpour for comparing American interrogation techniques to what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia after the Vietnam War.

Appearing on CNN International Wednesday, Thiessen took issue with Amanpour's April 2008 piece "Scream Bloody Murder" in which she made the case that waterboarding was similar to what the Khmer Rouge did in the '70s.

"[T]here have been so many misstatements told about the enhanced interrogation techniques, comparing them to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Khmer Rouge," said Thiessen. "And I have to tell you, Christiane, you're one of the people who have spread these mistruths."

This led to quite an exchange between the two (video of the entire 24-minute segment embedded below the fold with full transcript, fireworks start at 6:00):

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped Al Qaida recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: That was President Barack Obama speaking last May, explaining why he signed executive orders a year ago to close Guantanamo Bay prison, even though that hasn't happened yet. It also ended what the Bush administration called enhanced interrogation techniques, what others call torture.

Obama's decisions continue to resonate today amid new terror threats and plots. And joining me now to discuss all of this, Philippe Sands, international lawyer and author of "Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values," and former top speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Marc Thiessen. He's author of "Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack."

Welcome to you both. Thank you for being on this program.

MARC THIESSEN, AUTHOR, "COURTING DISASTER": Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: So, you're here. "How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack," that is very provocative. Do you think because he said that he's going to close Guantanamo Bay?

THIESSEN: No, it's because he's eliminated the capability to capture, detain, and effectively interrogate terrorists.

You know, if you think back to the period after September 11, 2001, we didn't know who had attacked us. Khalid Sheikh -- we didn't know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks or the operational chief of Al Qaida. And then we began to get -- capture terrorists, Abu Zubaydah, KSM.

And we found out that there were two terrorist networks that were threatening us, the KSM network that hit us on 9/11, and the Hambali network, which KSM had tasked to fly an airplane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles and blow it up. So using enhanced interrogation -- and I tell the story in my book -- we rounded up those two terrorist networks.

Now fast forward to 2009. There's a new terror network in Yemen called Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The Obama administration admits we knew nothing about their plans to attack us in America, and we were caught blind on Christmas Day. Why?

AMANPOUR: Well, a couple of things here to throw to Philippe Sands. Number one, it is generally assumed right now and said, even by former Bush officials, that President Obama continues much of the anti-terror infrastructure that President Bush and the administration put in. Number two, about Yemen, that they did have the intelligence about this guy, but they didn't connect the dots.

To you, Philippe. The fact that this Guantanamo Bay prison has not been closed, what signal is this sending?

PHILIPPE SANDS, INTERNATIONAL LAWYER: Well, I don't think that's sending too much of a signal, because the intention is obviously to close it. And whether it was January this year or July this year, or January next, the fact of its closure is a certainty, as President Obama puts it. And that has, I think, been very well received in many parts in the world as eliminating, as I think President Obama himself put it, one of the root causes of a recruiting tool.

And, of course, this is a place, the United Kingdom, my country, has been -- we're well aware of the situation in the 1970s where Britain did use many of the same techniques. And if you speak to British intelligence officers today, and those who were active then, as well as former IRA people, they will tell you it was a terrific recruiting tool.

But I really need to deal with the facts. I mean, Marc has written a terrifically entertaining book, but it's really a book of fiction, because it's not evidence-based. I'm interested in facts.

I read, for example, the sections where he wrote about the same person that I had written about in my book, Mohammed al-Kahtani, alleged to be the 20th hijacker. And he describes the interrogation he was subjected to at Guantanamo in the autumn of 2002.

[15:15:00]

And he says a great deal of information was found out from that man, when he obviously didn't speak to the head of al-Kahtani's exploitation team, who I did speak to, who basically said they didn't get anything really out of him, after all, that was meaningful and useful.

And I think if you speak to seasoned interrogators, they will tell you maybe you get a little bit information, you don't get a lot, but what you do get is completely overridden by the price that is paid of setting up a recruitment tool and recruiting others in their terrible cause.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask -- let me put that to Marc, then, because that is what most counter-terrorists and intelligence officials say, that you actually don't get what you need. They'll tell you anything just to stop these harsh measures.

And, furthermore, today's news is that the United States believe that some three dozen Americans who have been radicalized in prison here are now heading out to Yemen and their whereabouts and actions unknown.

THIESSEN: The people who say what Philippe says, that enhanced interrogation, you don't get anything because they won't -- because they'll tell you anything you want to know, don't know how enhanced interrogation is applied.

Unlike Philippe and the other critics, I've actually spoken to the CIA interrogators, the people who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and applied these enhanced interrogation techniques. And one of the things they told me which was fascinating, when Abu Zubaydah, the first terrorist who was interrogated by the CIA, was waterboarded, he told his -- he thanked his interrogators for waterboarding him and said to them, "You must do this for all the brothers."

And why did he do that? The reason he did it, he says, is because the jihadi philosophy is that Allah will prevail no matter what they do. So their moral responsibility is to resist as much as they can, and then once they've resisted, they are free to say whatever they want to do. They can spill their guts.

Now, if you know that, how do you design an interrogation plan? You design an interrogation program that is safe, that will not harm the detainees, but gives them something to resist. And that is what the CIA did with these, and they got intelligence that stopped terrorist attacks.

AMANPOUR: Do you support torture?

THIESSEN: It's not torture.

AMANPOUR: I know you -- I know you don't call it torture...

THIESSEN: It isn't torture.

AMANPOUR: ... but the extreme pain, the enhanced interrogations techniques.

THIESSEN: There's no extreme pain. There is no -- the techniques -- there have been so many misstatements told about the enhanced interrogation techniques, comparing them to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Khmer Rouge. And I have to tell you, Christiane, you're one of the people who have spread these mistruths.

AMANPOUR: Excuse me?

THIESSEN: Well, I'm sorry. You went to S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison in -- with Vann Nath, who's one of the survivors.

AMANPOUR: Yes. And we saw the waterboarding there, which they used as torture techniques. That's called spreading the truth.

THIESSEN: Let me -- let me read to you -- no, no, no. Let me read to you what you said. "I stared" -- this if from the CNN Web site.

AMANPOUR: Correct.

THIESSEN: "I stared blankly at another of Vann Nath's paintings. This time, a prisoner is submerged in a life-size box of water, handcuffed to the side so he cannot escape or raise his head to breathe, his interrogators arrayed him, demanding information. I asked Vann Nath whether he had heard this was once used on America's terror suspects. He nodded his head, 'It's not right.'"

That is completely false. We did not...

AMANPOUR: That's false?

THIESSEN: We did not submerge people in a box full of water. S-21...

AMANPOUR: Excuse me a second. That is called waterboarding.

THIESSEN: No, it's not.

AMANPOUR: You can say it which ever way you want.

THIESSEN: Christiane -- Christiane, you're absolutely wrong.

AMANPOUR: Philippe, this was Pol Pot and the genocidal regime...

THIESSEN: Fourteen thousand people killed at S-21, seven survivors.

AMANPOUR: Correct. Excuse me. You're trying to obfuscate the debate here.

THIESSEN: I'm not.

AMANPOUR: That prison was full of images of water torture. You can call it whatever you like.

THIESSEN: Which is nothing like what the CIA did. Do you have any...

AMANPOUR: It is what the Israelis use, the waterboarding.

Philippe, how do you answer Marc on this?

SANDS: I mean, in a very simple way. There is no doubt that waterboarding is torture. Marc supports waterboarding.

THIESSEN: I do.

SANDS: And some will say -- not me -- some will say that by writing about it in this way, he is complicit in torture.

THIESSEN: Are you going to try and get me prosecuted, too?

SANDS: I'm a passionate believer -- I'm a passionate believer in freedom of speech, and I don't believe people who write books are, in that way, in any way, complicit. But those who engage in the activity of waterboarding are engaging in torture.

Susan Crawford, President Bush's own convening authority at Guantanamo, has confirmed that Mohammed al-Kahtani, who wasn't even waterboarded, was tortured.

But let me take it a step further. I mean, I understand that Marc doesn't think waterboarding is torture. Why doesn't he submit himself to that technique?

THIESSEN: Because it's terribly unpleasant, and I'm not a terrorist.

SANDS: I understand that he -- I understand -- I understand that he was intending to submit himself to that technique, but, in the end, bottled out of it...

THIESSEN: Oh, please, Philippe.

SANDS: ... because he didn't have confidence -- he didn't have confidence that those who would impose it on him would necessary pull the plug at the right moment.

THIESSEN: Oh, very nice. Very nice.

SANDS: It's just an appalling technique.

AMANPOUR: OK. Let me ask you...

THIESSEN: Well, let me tell you -- let me ask you...

AMANPOUR: No, let me ask you this, because you've said your point and Philippe said his point.

THIESSEN: Well, I haven't actually.

AMANPOUR: I would like to know about what you recommend going forward, now that the president has banned torture, enhanced interrogation techniques. What happens going forward? And what do you think, for instance...

THIESSEN: Well, we should reconstitute the CIA interrogation program. But I want to answer this, because...

AMANPOUR: This same program?

[15:20:00]

THIESSEN: I want to answer this, because this is very important. First of all, what you had said was not waterboarding. You had said a bucket -- a barrel filled with water. We have no evidence whatsoever that the CIA ever actually did what you said they did. But putting that aside...

SANDS: You're splitting hairs, Marc.

THIESSEN: No, I'm not. It's a barrel of water.

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: Oh, come on. Dipping people's heads in water to stimulate drowning, period, end of story.

THIESSEN: No, no, hold on. Let me -- let me -- let me finish. No, no, listen. No, not period, end of story.

AMANPOUR: Let's move forward.

THIESSEN: No, I want to answer this, Christiane.

SANDS: Marc -- Marc, it matters not whether you put someone's head in a bucket of water...

(CROSSTALK)

THIESSEN: Excuse me, Philippe. I thought you said we're not going to interrupt each other. Let me -- it does. Let me tell you something. We - - we waterboarded in the CIA -- the CIA waterboarded three terrorists, just three. Nobody waterboarded in Guantanamo. You know who else the U.S. government has waterboarded? Tens of thousands of American servicemembers during their SERE training.

We do not pull off their fingernails. We do not electrocute them with cattle prods. We do not pour hot oil down their nostrils or other forms of interrogation or do the things that were done to them in S-21. But we do waterboard them.

Do you not think, if waterboarding was torture, that one of those American servicemembers would have complained to his congressman, there would have been congressional hearings, and we would have -- and it would have been banned by law? If we had been pulling off their fingernails, that would have happened.

AMANPOUR: Right. But we're talking about waterboarding.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDS: Marc -- can I put one question to Marc?

THIESSEN: Yes.

SANDS: Christiane, can I put one question to Marc? If it's not torture and if it's not a problem, do you have any objection to American nationals being waterboarded in other countries? Do you have any objection to American servicemen and women being subjected to waterboarding?

THIESSEN: American servicemen and women are lawful combatants who are protected by the Geneva Conventions. Terrorists who are -- who are unlawful combatants, who target innocent men and women and -- and women are not lawful combatants, and you can interrogate them differently.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you, Marc...

(CROSSTALK)

THIESSEN: But the point is -- why is -- why is -- I want to ask you, Philippe. Why is waterboarding American servicemembers...

(CROSSTALK)

THIESSEN: Let me answer -- let me finish now. Why is waterboarding American servicemembers not torture? Or do we torture our troops?

AMANPOUR: They're only done in training, as you know.

SANDS: I think training is a completely different thing.

THIESSEN: OK. So you acknowledge that not all waterboarding is torture? So when we waterboard our troops, it's not torture?

AMANPOUR: Marc, come on.

THIESSEN: What?

SANDS: I find it incredible, Marc, that you would -- you would suggest that an American serviceman or woman who is put through that process knowing that the moment he asks for it to stop it will be stopped could be the same thing as being waterboarded...

(CROSSTALK)

THIESSEN: OK.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask -- I want to ask a final question.

SANDS: But -- but -- but, Christiane -- but, Christiane Amanpour, can I just put this point -- I take it that Marc has confirmed, as General Myers (ph) confirmed to me, as General Hill (ph) confirmed to me, it would be totally unacceptable in all circumstances for any American to be subject to any of these techniques abroad.

THIESSEN: Because they are...

AMANPOUR: That is what the -- what the Pentagon...

THIESSEN: Because they have Geneva Conventions -- full protections of the Geneva Conventions, which terrorists do not merit.

AMANPOUR: Precisely. Can I ask you this?

THIESSEN: Yes.

AMANPOUR: Do you not think that all of this debate, including America's ability to keep dangerous people imprisoned, would have been enhanced had the Bush administration simply called them POWs from the beginning, put them away until the end of the war, with the rights and protections of the Geneva Conventions, but kept them away in prison until the end of the war?

THIESSEN: But why would we give them Geneva Convention protections? They don't merit Geneva Conventions protections. They're terrorists.

The -- the Geneva Conventions -- this is one of the biggest myths about the Geneva Convention -- it is not designed to govern the treatment of prisoners of war. It is designed to protect civilians, to get people to follow the laws of war. So if you give the same protections to someone who violates the laws of war as someone who follows them, you completely undermine the Geneva Conventions.

But the point is, these techniques, as applied by the CIA, produced intelligence that stopped a terrorist attack to blow up our consulate in Karachi, to blow up our Marine camp in Djibouti, to blow -- for Al Qaida, who was -- they were planning to hijack an airplane and fly it into Heathrow Airport and -- and buildings in downtown London -- I hope nowhere near your offices, Philippe -- and they were planning to fly an airplane into Library Tower in -- in -- in Los Angeles.

So my question to Philippe is, which of these attacks would you prefer we hadn't stopped?

SANDS: I -- I simply don't accept your underlying premise that any information that has been obtained would have prevented these things.

THIESSEN: It's a fact.

SANDS: Let me test the proposition a different -- let me test your proposition a different way. You argue that because these techniques were used in the United States, there were no further attacks on the mainland. How, then, do you explain the fact that, in the United Kingdom, which doesn't use these techniques, there have been no further attacks in the last five years?

The argument is a fallacious argument. It's a naive argument. It's straight out of -- frankly, Marc, it's straight out of Monty Python.

AMANPOUR: OK, listen, this is a very heated debate.

THIESSEN: Sure.

AMANPOUR: Obviously very, very strong convictions. And we are going to talk about it more on our Web site. We're going to continue this discussion, which you can all see on amanpour.com.

Readers are encouraged to review a NewsBusters report on Amanpour's April 2008 piece.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.