Melina Mara – The Washington Post
Yesterday morning, the American Enterprise Institute held an event titled “Watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ with the CIA: Separating fact from fiction.”
AEI’s Marc Thiessen (author of “Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack”) will host a panel discussion with three CIA veterans who were involved in the hunt for bin Laden.
General Michael Hayden (ret.), Former Director CIA
John A. Rizzo, Former Chief Legal Officer at CIA
Jose Rodriguez, Former Director National Clandestine Service
At an American Enterprise Institute forum to discuss the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, former CIA Director Michael Hayden added that the administration has made capturing terrorists for interrogation such a “third rail” that it’s better for soldiers and CIA operatives to kill their targets rather than face a “legally difficult and politically dangerous” climate.
The two, along with former top CIA lawyer John Rizzo, also lashed out at a secret, 6,000-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report that endorses the administration’s view that the interrogation program, noted for its waterboarding of terrorists, did not produce any intelligence.
“It’s a ridiculous assertion when a report says that enhanced interrogation program had no value or produced nothing. Frankly it’s disturbing. Because in my view it is an attempt to rewrite history. The narrative of this administration is that the enhanced interrogation program was torture and nothing came out of it, but in fact we were able to destroy al Qaeda because of it,” said Rodriguez, who added that the committee never interviewed any of the three ex-CIA officials about their program.
While they said the movie was not totally accurate, the three praised it for showing how long and difficult the hunt for bin Laden was and how intelligence gathering works. However, they said that the make-it-up-as-you-go interrogation style used in the movie didn’t happen as shown. They also said that no Italian sports cars were given in return for information.
In a revealing comment, Rodriguez recalled that in 2003, key detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed warned that interrogators would eventually be targeted by Washington for their methods. “You know,” said Mohammed, ” eventually your own government will come after you.” Rodriguez said he just laughed at the time.
He and others have since been the targets of lawsuits and investigations and he said that being targeted by critics, combined with Obama’s executive order killing the interrogation program, has had a “chilling effect” on top CIA officers in the field hunting down terrorists.
In Zero Dark Thirty, CIA characters warn of congressmen coming after them for running the agency’s interrogation program. As it happens, they could have said the same thing about making a movie about the agency’s interrogation program.
Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin have panned the movie as inaccurate for suggesting that enhanced interrogation, or what its critics call “torture,” helped find Osama bin Laden. Fine. They can slam it all they want. They can give it zero stars on their websites. They can write harsh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. They can urge friends to go see Silver Linings Playbook instead.
Where they have shamefully — and pathetically — overstepped their bounds is in using their positions to badger the CIA over its cooperation with the filmmakers. In December, the trio wrote the acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, two heavy-breathing letters about the movie, demanding in one of them to learn everything the agency told Bigelow and her team. It’s as if Bigelow were an agent of a foreign power.
The casual viewer of Zero Dark Thirty will find it hard to see what Langley could have possibly revealed that is worth investigating. It is, at the end of the day, another Hollywood movie,
If Bigelow were targeted by high elected officials for anything other than making a movie supposedly sympathetic to torture, the Academy would be honoring her as a martyr to the First Amendment.
Bigelow upset the senators and other purveyors of polite opinion by trampling on Washington pieties about interrogation. Zero Dark Thirty depicts detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation as providing information — sometimes through their deceptions — that helped the CIA zero in on the man acting as bin Laden’s courier.
Boal told Time magazine: “If the general impression you get from this movie is that torture played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that’s because that’s true. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean they had to torture people or that torture is necessary or torture is morally right.”
As his comment suggests, the movie is hardly an advertisement for harsh interrogation. It depicts the CIA program as more frankly violent and uncontrolled than it was, confusing it with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Detainees weren’t beaten up. Interrogators didn’t waterboard them on the spot for unsatisfactory answers. Even if in reality the CIA program was more antiseptic and bureaucratic than depicted, the movie leaves no doubt that breaking a man is a brutal business.
That’s not enough for the amateur film critics of the world’s greatest deliberative body, though. They want to believe that we could have waged a shadowy war against terrorist operatives in the deadly urgent circumstances immediately after September 11 without ever making difficult moral choices. For whatever reason, they are fine with flying trained killers to a compound in Pakistan in the dead of night to shoot the place up and bring bin Laden back in a sack. But they can’t bear the thought that any of bin Laden’s associates suffered coercive interrogations.
In this case — in perhaps a first — it is Hollywood that has the greater appreciation for complexity and moral realism.
Throughout the first hour of the movie, a CIA officer named “Dan” appears to be able to ask a detainee any question that comes to mind, and perform any interrogation technique at his disposal if the detainee fails to give a satisfactory answer. Among the techniques shown is putting the detainee inside a box barely big enough for him to fit when it was closed.
Rizzo said those scenes weren’t quite right.
“Those interrogators were not allowed to ad lib… There was a meticulous procedure to undertake,” he said.
The former CIA lawyer also took issue with the portrayal of “the box.” While he acknowledged that the technique was “not pleasant,” Rizzo noted that the CIA often used a much larger box in which detainees could stand, and that the smaller box the agency employed was not the same size as the one portrayed in the film.
Rodriguez also said that the interrogation shown in the film lasted much longer than it had in real life. Enhanced interrogation of detainees post-9/11, he said, mostly lasted just a few days, or in the case of more high profile terrorists, a few weeks.
“But it was a finite amount of time,” he said.
Rodriguez said evidence of this fact is that detainees often figured out how long their torture would last. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for example, named “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” by the 9/11 Commission Report, realized that agents were allowed to waterboard him for up to 10 seconds, according to Rodriguez.
“After a while [KSM] figured it out and he started to count with his fingers up to 10 to let us know that the time was up,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez also argued that the film failed to note why torture was effective.
One high-profile detainee, according to Rodriguez, had recommended to the CIA that it use these tactics on all al-Qaeda members because “they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities.”
“Once they felt they were [tortured long enough] they would become compliant” and share the information they had with the agency, he said.
“And they’d do so without sin,” added Hayden.
“I was not trying to prove the point that what we were doing was universally applicable for all detainees and circumstances,” said Hayden. “It was particularly well-suited to this group.”
Another part of the film Hayden seemed genuinely pained by was the portrayal of CIA agent Jennifer Matthews (“Jessica” in the film), who died in 2009 after a suicide bombing along at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan killed her and six other CIA operatives. In the movie, Matthews’ eagerness to land a source appears to lead to the operatives’ deaths. Hayden said he was “disturbed” by that portrayal.
“Jennifer was a wonderful officer… She was in this before hunting bin Laden was cool,” he said. “I understand artistically they wanted to create some sort of juxtaposition between her and [the main character CIA officer] Maya. But it was very unfortunate and very unfair that she was portrayed that way.”
Rizzo agreed, saying that Matthews was “a far more complex and interesting character in real life” (and “far more attractive,” he also noted). Rizzo related that after 9/11, Matthews had been put on a list of CIA agents held partially accountable for failing to stop the attacks. Her inclusion on that list had “haunted her” for years afterwards, he said.
What was accurate about the inclusion of Matthews, according to Hayden, was that bin Laden was brought down by women.
“It was an incredible band of sisters that really spearheaded the UBL [Osama bin Laden] cell,” he said, noting that most of CIA operatives who briefed him on the al-Qaeda leader over the years were female.
WaPo‘s Richard Cohen:
I am implacably opposed to torture . . . unless it can save lives.
This foggy position of confusion and ambiguity has been largely missing from the debate over the film. Everyone seems so sure of everything. The rush for certainty started, I think, with the basso profundo statements from the filmmakers that the movie is — as the credits state — “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” I have no idea what this means since the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, concede that they used composite characters and have necessarily compressed the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into a 2½-hour movie. Some things get left out, like truth.
Almost instantly, three members of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain, protested the film’s depiction of torture as instrumental in locating and ultimately killing bin Laden. They insisted instead that it was dogged intelligence work, the piecemeal accumulation of information that, say whatever else you will about it, is not inherently dramatic. No one will ever make an action movie about an accountant.
Perhaps the most unequivocal statement comes from Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. Coll is a former managing editor of The Post and the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” for which, appropriately, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He is, in other words, a highly serious and thoughtful person who says the following: “Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral.”
Really? Is it immoral to waterboard someone who knows of an imminent Sept. 11-type attack? Wouldn’t it instead be immoral not to do everything in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives? Torture in that case might be hideous, repugnant and in some rarefied way still immoral, but I could certainly justify it. This is far different than waterboarding an al-Qaeda member who knows something about bin Laden’s whereabouts. After all, if it took a decade to get him, a bit more time would not have mattered. Morality and the clock are, inescapably, connected.