Thiessen Watch: Are 100 deaths in U.S. custody meaningless?
By Renée Schomp, Law and Security program
Cross-posted at Huffington Post.
Yesterday in the National Review Online, Marc Thiessen attempted to repudiate New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer’s critical in-depth review of his book, Courting Disaster. But he only dug himself deeper into the rhetorical ditch he shares with fellow torture apologists Dick and Liz Cheney.
One of Thiessen’s many notable digs at Mayer concerns the disturbing issue of the detainee deaths that have occurred in U.S. custody during the “war on terror.” In her review of his book, Mayer noted that “’Courting Disaster’ downplays the C.I.A.’s brutality under the Bush Administration to the point of falsification.”
But in response to her skepticism regarding Thiessen’s assertion that no “deaths [of detainees] in custody took place in the C.I.A. interrogation program,” the former Bush speechwriter clarifies that a detainee freezing to death in a CIA-run prison in Afghanistan (an example Mayer cited) simply doesn’t count as a detainee dying during a CIA interrogation.
Apparently Thiessen believes that what happens in the CIA interrogation room is completely separable from the CIA’s treatment of a prisoner elsewhere. That would conveniently discount many of the worst abuses, such as sleep deprivation, food deprivation, stress positions, beatings, and, yes, leaving a prisoner in the cold to freeze to death.
Thiessen complains of Mayer, “Her implication is that I gloss over the issue of deaths in custody…Not only do I not gloss over deaths in custody, I discuss at great length a 2006 report by Human Rights First [regarding deaths in custody].” (Emphasis mine).
In fact, Thiessen’s discussion “at great length” regarding HRF’s Command’s Responsibility report on deaths in custody consists of exactly one and a half pages at the end of a chapter titled “Tough, Not Torture.” And he seems to have read literally only the first sentence of the report—which is also the one sentence he quotes.
The complete first paragraph reads:
“Since August 2002, nearly 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S.
officials in the global ‘war on terror.’ According to the U.S. military’s own
classifications, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides; Human
Rights First has identified another 11 in which the facts suggest death as a
result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention. In close to half the
deaths Human Rights First surveyed, the cause of death remains officially
undetermined or unannounced. Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured
Thiessen’s whopping one and a half pages (out of 383 total pages) covering detainee deaths in custody consist of him explaining that these deaths (which account for those in the “war on terror” up until 2006) should be discounted for three simple reasons.
First, he argues that it’s normal for some prisoners to die of “natural causes” no matter how they’re treated. Human Rights First’s report on deaths in custody details a number of questions surrounding the detainee deaths classified as supposedly “natural.”
Then Thiessen says that compared to the total number of detainees in custody, nearly one hundred deaths is a tiny percentage. So now the fact that we’ve detained a vast number of detainees in the “war on terror” (many of them indefinitely) is used to indicate just how well we’re actually treating them overall.
And finally, he explains that according to pop historian Stephen Ambrose, way more German POWs died in Allied custody during WWII, so we really shouldn’t be complaining. Scientists and medical professionals will appreciate Thiessen’s acknowledgment of decades of medical and scientific advancements in patient treatment.
John D. Hutson, Rear Admiral (Ret.), JAGC, USN said about Human Rights First’s report,
“Command’s Responsibility documents a dozen brutal deaths as the result of the
most horrific treatment. One such incident would be an isolated transgression;
two would be a serious problem; a dozen of them is policy. The law of military
justice has long recognized that military leaders are held responsible for the
conduct of their troops. Yet this report also documents that no civilian official or officer above the rank of major responsible for interrogation and detention practices has been charged in connection with the torture or abuse-related death of a detainee in U.S. custody. And the highest punishment for anyone handed down in the case of a torture-related death has been five months in jail. This is not accountability as we know it in the United States.”
Rear Admiral Hutson speaks specifically of only a dozen of the nearly one hundred deaths in U.S. custody documented in the “war on terror” until 2006, and is clearly moved by them. Thiessen, on the other hand, consistently goes to great pains to dehumanize detainees and discount their deaths–to the wild advancement of his own career.