Marc Thiessen is a visiting fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a columnist for the Washington Post who is known for his advocacy of controversial foreign and defense policies, as well as his at times misleading characterizations of current affairs.
A vocal defender of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and other aspects of the George W. Bush administration's "war on terror," Thiessen was one of several Washington Post opinion writers—others included Charles Krauthammer and Jennifer Rubin—who championed the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan presidential campaign and issued harsh attacks on President Barack Obama during the run up to the 2012 presidential election.
An exemplary case of Thiessen's work came in September 2012, when he helped sparked a right-wing campaign aimed at impugning Obama's White House record by publicizing, in his Washington Post column, the misleading claim that Obama "skipped" more than half of his daily intelligence briefings. The claim—which was repeated by Sen. John McCain and a host of conservative blogs—was debunked by the Post's own fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, who pointed out that presidents can decide to receive the briefings orally or in writing. Referring to an ad issued by the Karl Rove-led Crossroads America, which repeated the false claims, Kessler wrote: "Ultimately, what matters is what a president does with the information he receives from the CIA. Republican critics may find fault with Obama's handling of foreign policy. But this attack ad turns a question of process … into a misguided attackbecause Obama has chosen to receive his information in a different manner than his predecessor."
Reflecting on the Post's controversial recent history of hiring right-wing ideologues, the episode led Salon columnist Alex Pareene to opine: "When you, the major daily newspaper, get to the point where your official in-house fact checker is not just calling one of your columnists dishonest but also practically mocking his arguments as ridiculous, maybe you should reconsider some of your hiring strategies."
A speechwriter in the Bush White House and Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon, Thiessen has a lengthy track record working for right-wing and hardline nationalist organizations and political figures. He was a policy adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms in the late 1990s; served as a assistant at the William Bennett-led Empower America (now FreedomWorks); and received a fellowship at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution.
Thiessen got his start in right-wing Washington politics working as a researcher at the now-defunct lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly during 1989-1993. The firm, which was closely associated with conservative senators like Helms and Phil Gramm, was notorious for its work on behalf of controversial clients, including Zaire's Mobuto Sese Seko, the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos, and the Angolan rebel group UNITA. A 1992 article in Spy magazine opined, "The well-compensated flacks at Black Manafort stand at the pinnacle of organizational apologism. Name a corrupt despot, and Black Manafort will name the account."
Thiessen's 2010 book Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack helped propel him into the center of the debate over the efficacy and legality of torture as a tool in the fight against terrorism. Published by the rightist Regnery Press, Courting Disaster was widely lauded by many high-profile figures on the right, including Vice President Dick Cheney, blurbed on book's jacket saying, "Marc Thiessen knows, in ways that few others do, just how effective, heroic, and morally justified were the interrogators who kept this nation safe after 9/11. If you want to know what really happened behind the scenes at the CIA interrogation sites or at Guantanamo Bay, you simply must read this book."
Courting Disasteris premised on the idea that the CIA's torture techniques were instrumental to stopping terrorist plots. Moreover, Thiessen claimed in the book that by halting the so-called "enhanced interrogation methods," President Obama put the United States at risk of another catastrophic attack.
Author Jane Mayer, who wrote an exhaustive book detailing the Bush administration's torture plans, slammed the book in a March 2010 article for The New Yorker, calling it the "unofficial bible of torture apologists." Mayer demonstrated that Thiessen's arguments were specious at best, writing that "Thiessen is better at conveying fear than at relaying the facts." Thiessen claimed that torture helped stop an airline plot foiled by British intelligence—except that those in charge at Scotland Yard said that he was "completely and utterly wrong." Mayer went on to lambast Thiessen for arguing that only Obama and fellow Democrats opposed the Bush administration's torture practices, which was patently false—many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), argued privately and publicly that the Bush administration's treatment of prisoners amounted to torture.
In a Washington Post column following bin Laden's death, Thiessen wrote that it was "time for a public apology" from Obama to CIA Agents who tortured prisoners. However, subsequent information showed that torture was minimally helpful in the lead up to bin Laden's death.
Thiessen later attacked a May 2011 McCain speech in which the senator insisted that information gained from torture had no part in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In a blog post for the American Enterprise Institute, Thiessen quoted several anonymous senior CIA officials to defend the torture program and claim it contributed to bin Laden's death, arguing that if torture did not help, "why isn't CIA Director Leon Panetta making these same claims?" Inconveniently for Thiessen, a letter from Panetta to McCain was reported on by the Washington Post on the very same day of his blog post. In the letter, the CIA chief said that information gleaned from torture had only played a very small role, if any, in finding bin Laden.
Thiessen's campaign against the Obama administration has included comparing the Bush administration lawyers who crafted a legal case for using torture with Obama Justice Department appointees who at one time represented terrorist suspects. Thiessen argued that the right to counsel—the very framework of the U.S. legal system—is superfluous and in fact harmful when it comes to terror suspects. He then vigorously defended "Fine lawyers like John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Jim Haynes, Steve Bradbury," who arguably violated both U.S. and international law in providing a legal alibi for torture.
Aside from his perch on the Washington Post editorial page, Thiessen frequently appears on talk shows (and comedy shows, like the Daily Show) and gives presentations at conferences to discuss his views on torture and the war on terror. Among his presentations, in September 2010 Thiessen was a panelist at an AEI event titled The Way Forward in the War on Terror. Other speakers included Danielle Pletka, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Gary Schmitt (former executive director of the Project for the New American Century), and AEI's Thomas Donnelly.