‘ZERO Dark Thirty” hits movie theaters this week, but it has already ignited a debate about torture. At issue is its efficacy — or lack thereof. The film suggests that torture was both effective and necessary in the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.
But that’s just not true.
As it happens, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence just voted to adopt its 6,000-plus-page report on CIA post-9/11 detention and interrogation. It was this report that Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., consulted to debunk the claim that torture was integral to the effort to find Bin Laden. Others with access to classified information — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin, and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain — confirm that torture did not play a key role in the hunt.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” by contrast, advances the idea that torture of a detainee named Ammar (possibly Ammar al-Baluchi, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s nephew and alleged deputy) revealed the identity of Bin Laden’s courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, which eventually led the Navy SEALs to Abbottabad.
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I wish I could be confident that most Americans will see the movie for what it is, a fictionalized account, but given the power of big-budget movies, “Zero Dark Thirty” could become the unofficial official record, a defining first draft of history. Blurring the lines between history and drama appears to be the aim of Kathryn Bigelow, the director who also made the film “Hurt Locker.” She says the film is “almost journalistic.” A message at the beginning of the movie says it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”
But it isn’t based on the best, most complete information. That’s contained in the Senate report. The Intelligence Committee should now vote to declassify it so that Americans can see what was done in their name — the fact-based account, as opposed to Hollywood’s version.
Most are familiar with waterboarding and the other enhanced interrogation methods used following 9/11, illegal techniques that were later banned in an executive order issued by President Obama on his second day in office. However, unlike most Americans, I have firsthand knowledge that torture is ineffective.
As a retired Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent with 23 years of experience, I performed numerous rapport-based interrogations on terrorist suspects in the United States, the prison at Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan. I can attest to success of traditional law-enforcement-type interrogations.
Since the terrible events of 9/11, American men and women, both military and civilian, have spent countless hours performing interrogations without resorting to torture. Patient, well-researched and systematic interrogations have been successful, legal and morally sound.
To perform rapport-based interrogations, one need not consult with a bevy of lawyers. And no tapes of interrogations need to be destroyed for the fear of the damage it will do to our interests around the world. Instead, we have results that will stand up in a court of law, the court of world opinion and, ultimately, the court of history.
For the full answer to the question of whether torture “works,” one needs to look past the interrogation booth.
Having served for almost a decade in the Middle East, I’ve seen the grave long-term strategic damage done to our country by the use of torture. The so-called Enhanced Interrogation program, no matter how many times its supporters claim it kept us safe, has been a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaida and like-minded associates among the politically disenfranchised young men of the Middle East.
In his treatise “The Art of War,” the ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu stated that all warfare is based on deception — deception aimed at making our enemy’s perception of reality fit the tactical and strategic objectives of our side.
However, we are deceiving no one but ourselves when we believe that torture is a valuable tactic in our struggle against terrorism. Hollywood’s artistic license aside, the ultimate victory against groups like al-Qaida will not be achieved through the ham-handed use of medieval methods of interrogation.
Michael Marks, an Oak Harbor resident, is a retired Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent. He has served in more than 20 countries, including Bahrain, Afghanistan and Yemen.