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Thiessen's Strike on Obama Misses by a Mile Thiessen's Strike on Obama Misses by a Mile

Thiessen's Strike on Obama Misses by a Mile

by Michael M. Lieberman
February 14, 2010


When it comes to getting good intelligence, torture is what hurts, not drone strikes.


When hawks on the political right go so far as to condemn killing terrorists as part of their campaign against President Obama, you can't blame yourself for wondering if you woke up in some parallel universe. Since when does the GOP shy away from killin' ‘em all? But reading Marc Thiessen's recent piece on the Obama administration's expanded campaign of drone strikes the fog quickly clears: Thiessen prefers the option of torturing captured terrorists instead. The world makes sense again.

Surely, Thiessen's basic point-killing terrorists prevents us from accessing the valuable intelligence they possess-has merit. But Thiessen wields this truism to accuse Obama of putting the United States at "greater risk of a terrorist attack" by killing violent jihadis as a "substitute" for capturing them. That way, in Thiessen's view, Obama can "appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States." Here the merit stops and the buffoonery begins.

First of all, Thiessen conveniently neglects to share with us which "hard decisions" he means. Throughout his piece, he makes only vague references to Obama "eliminating … the most important and successful intelligence programs in the war on terror." But given Thiessen's singular claim to fame, that he examined "the most sensitive intelligence" when crafting George W. Bush's 2006 defense of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, we know exactly what he means: torture.

That Thiessen champions torture as a method for intelligence gathering while condemning the expanded use of drone strikes is, to be charitable, ironic. Indeed, how much less likely is it that terrorists' friends or family would give us information if they knew their loved ones would be tortured? Would Abdul Muttalab's father have given us a call if he knew waterboarding awaited his son? Thiessen should know that prohibiting torture actually enhances our information-gathering efforts. It also prevents the creation of more terrorists that we don't have to kill, capture, or torture.

In a vain effort to support his allegation that Obama's aggressive approach to eliminating al Qaeda operatives denies us critical intel, Thiessen also trots out a quotation from a "high-ranking CIA official." Read for yourself: The quotation only makes the uncontested point that killing senior terrorists can be counterproductive from an intelligence standpoint. The official makes no claim that Obama's drone strikes have cost us valuable information. In any event, where does Thiessen think we're getting the intel to target these guys so accurately in the first place?

Thiessen's view seems to be that we can just as easily capture violent jihadis as kill them. This is absurd. Capturing terrorists requires far more extensive operational prepositioning and host-country cooperation than a stand-off Hellfire missile capability. Attempting to capture terrorists also puts our brave soldiers in harm's way, which should not be done unless absolutely necessary. In any event, many terrorist leaders reside in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where American soldiers and agents can hardly operate at will. And Obama is not about to make Bush's mistake of outsourcing such sensitive missions unless success is assured.

The reality is that several developments have helped push the throttle on drone strikes in the past year. The first is a redeployment of assets, including drones, manpower, and other resources, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has nearly doubled the number of drones now available to the region. American efforts have also benefited from an increased willingness to cooperate from our allies in Pakistan, who have stepped up their information sharing in recent months. The increased use of the Reaper drone, with superior firepower and accuracy, is another factor.

Contrary to Thiessen's bald assertions, there is nothing to suggest that the opportunity cost of Obama's drone campaign can be counted in lost intelligence. Between the lines of Thiessen's article one instead sees an effort to justify feeding Bush the words to defend his use of torture. Given the shodiness of his reasoning, we can only hope that Thiessen's case, like his boss' legacy, is destined for the dust bin.

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