When CNN's Christiane Amanpour hosted a debate on Wednesday between conservative writer Marc Thiessen and British lawyer Philippe Sands, the conversation quickly took a turn to the surreal that concluded with Sands telling Thiessen his argument was "straight out of Monty Python."
Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush and the author of Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, started off by charging that the Christmas Day underwear bomber was able to go undetected because the Obama administration has "eliminated the capability to capture, detain, and effectively interrogate terrorists."
Sands, the author of Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, responded to Thiessen's defense of enhanced interrogation by saying, "Marc has written a terrifically entertaining book, but it's really a book of fiction. ... 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."
"Unlike Philippe and the other critics, I've actually spoken to the CIA interrogators," Thiessen retorted. "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.'"
"Do you support torture?" Amanpour asked bluntly.
"It's not torture," Thiessen replied. "There have been so many misstatements told about the enhanced interrogation techniques, comparing them to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Khmer Rouge..." At that point, he brought out a transcript of a CNN story from a year ago in which Amanpour described a set of paintings at a former Khmer Rouge prison in Cambodia which is now a museum.
"One of his paintings shows a prisoner blindfolded and hoisted onto a makeshift scaffold by two guards," she reported. "He is then lowered head first into a massive barrel of water. Another shows a prisoner with cloth over his face, writhing as an interrogator pours water over his head."
Thiessen quoted this description of a prisoner being lowered into a barrel of water, while conveniently omitting the sentence about water being poured onto a prisoner's face. "We did not submerge people in a box full of water," he objected.
"Excuse me a second. That is called waterboarding," Amanpour replied.
"No, it's not." insisted Thiessen. "You're absolutely wrong,"
"You're trying to obfuscate the debate here," Amanpour complained. "That prison was full of images of water torture. You can call it whatever you like."
Thiessen went on to offer a series of arguments in support of waterboarding, finally citing a number of foiled terrorist attacks and asking Sands, "Which of these attacks would you prefer we hadn't stopped?"
"I simply don't accept your underlying premise that any information that has been obtained would have prevented these things," Sands replied. "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."
Conservative blogs have, predictably, begun describing this exchange as a triumph for Thiessen. Human Events proclaimed that "a stunned Amanpour" was "left momentarily speechless" when Thiessen proved "that she had misled her viewers about the CIA’s waterboarding techniques."
Erick Erickson at Red State exulted, "What makes it so spectacular is that Thiessen reads to Amanpour her own words and tells her what she said 'is completely false.' She goes ballastic [sic] and he proceeds to then mop the floor with her."
And a blog called "Yid With Lid" went even further in an entry offensively titled, "Marc Thiessen 'Bitch-Slaps' Christiane Amanpour For Lying During CNN Interview."
"Christiane Amanpour, the Chief international correspondent of Cable News Network grew up in Tehran where her father was a shill for the Shah's government," the blogger began. "Christiane cut her teeth on her her [sic] one-sided coverage of the conflict in Bosnia. Since then she has continued to support the Islamofacist [sic] cause every chance she can. ... When Amanpour challenged Thiessen about waterboarding being torture, Thiessen directly challenged her with evidence that she had misled her viewers about the CIA’s waterboarding techniques . To be honest he wiped the floor with her."
In all fairness, Amanpour's original story may have unfairly blurred the line between waterboarding and more severe forms of water torture. Thiessen, however, played fast and loose with the transcript by omitting the sentence describing the Khmer Rouge torturers pouring water over a cloth on a prisoner's face. So perhaps there was a little floor-wiping on both sides.