Torture, Lies and Hollywood
By ALI H. SOUFAN
Published: February 22, 2013
I WATCHED “Zero Dark Thirty” not as a former F.B.I. special agent who spent a decade chasing, interrogating and prosecuting top members of Al Qaeda but as someone who enjoys Hollywood movies. As a movie, I enjoyed it. As history, it’s bunk.
The film opens with the words “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” But the filmmakers immediately pass fiction off as history, when a character named Ammar is tortured and afterward, it’s implied, gives up information that leads to Osama bin Laden.
Ammar is a composite character who bears a strong resemblance to a real-life terrorist, Ammar al-Baluchi. In both the film and real life he was a relative of Bin Laden’s lieutenant, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But the C.I.A. has repeatedly said that only three detainees were ever waterboarded. The real Mr. Baluchi was not among them, and he didn’t give up information that led to Bin Laden.
In fact, torture led us away from Bin Laden. After Mr. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, he actually played down the importance of the courier who ultimately led us to Bin Laden. Numerous investigations, most recently a 6,300-page classified report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have reached the same conclusion: enhanced interrogation didn’t work. Portraying torture as effective risks misleading the next generation of Americans that one of our government’s greatest successes came about because of the efficacy of torture. It’s a disservice both to our history and our national security.
While filmmakers have the right to say what they want, government officials don’t have the right to covertly provide filmmakers with false information to promote their own interests. Providing selective information about a classified program means there is no free market of ideas, but a controlled market subject to manipulation. That’s an abuse of power.
John O. Brennan, a former C.I.A. official and now President Obama’s nominee to head the agency, recently testified that the classified report raised “serious questions” about information he received when he was the agency’s deputy executive director. Mr. Brennan said publicly what many of us — who were in interrogation rooms when the program was devised — have been warning about for years: senior officials, right up to the president himself, were misled about the enhanced interrogation program.
For instance, a 2005 Justice Department memo claimed that waterboarding led to the capture of the American-born Qaeda member Jose Padilla in 2003. Actually, he was arrested in 2002, months before waterboarding began, after an F.B.I. colleague and I got details about him from a terrorist named Abu Zubaydah. Because no one checked the dates, the canard about Mr. Padilla was repeated as truth.
When agents heard senior officials citing information we knew was false, we were barred from speaking out. After President George W. Bush gave a speech containing falsehoods in 2006 — I believe his subordinates lied to him — I was told by one of my superiors: “This is still classified. Just because the president is talking about it doesn’t mean that we can.”
Some of these memos, and reports pointing out their inaccuracies, have been declassified, but they are also heavily redacted. So are books on the subject, including my own.
Meanwhile, promoters of torture get to hoodwink journalists, authors and Hollywood producers while selectively declassifying material and providing false information that fits their narrative.
The creators of “Zero Dark Thirty” attempted to document the greatest global manhunt of our generation. But they did so without acknowledging that their “history” was based on dubious sources.
The filmmakers took the “firsthand accounts” of a few current and former officials with an agenda and amplified their message worldwide — suggesting to Americans in cinemas around the country, and regimes overseas, that torture is effective and helped lead to Bin Laden. There is no suggestion in the movie that another narrative exists.
Hollywood is primarily about entertainment. The moral responsibility for setting history straight, ensuring the public isn’t misled, and making sure mistakes aren’t repeated falls to Congress and the president. Yet the Senate report remains classified, and only those with security clearances, like Mr. Brennan, can read how the public was misled.
It’s the duty of the president and Congress to responsibly declassify the report — and the other documents that advocates of torture don’t want released.
That’s the only way to ensure that future generations won’t ever go down that dark and dangerous path again. As Senator John McCain has said, the Senate report “has the potential to set the record straight once and for all” and end “a stain on our country’s conscience.”
Once that’s done, it won’t be long before another Hollywood movie comes along to tell the real story about how America killed Bin Laden.