Friday, December 14, 2012

Torturing the Truth

A new movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, has renewed debate over the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorist suspects.

As a disclaimer, I haven’t seen the show (and am not sure I want to).  According to reviews, it opens with a graphic depiction of waterboarding, giving an impression that torture helped provide useful information ultimately leading to Bin Laden’s death.

The problem is it’s not true.  I recently finished reading Confront and Conceal, an account of Obama’s “secret wars” by New York Times’ chief Washington correspondent David Sanger.  Sanger reminds readers how Bin Laden dropped out of sight after his escape from the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001. By the end of the Bush administration, the missing Al-Qaeda leader was seldom mentioned by the White House.  As incoming President, Obama put renewed energy into locating the mastermind of 9/11, but the trail had grown cold. 

One scheme to find him involved flooding Pakistan with cheap video cameras, each containing a secret digital signature that could be traced.  Since Bin-Laden loved to make propaganda videos, the hope was that he might actually use one of the devices, which would then give a key to his location.

But in the end, it was old-fashioned sleuthing that smoked him out.  A suspicious cell phone conversation from an Al-Qaeda courier led agents to the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where the CIA discovered a mysterious white compound surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.  Images from a surveillance drone showed a tall, reclusive man walking daily inside the enclave. When President Obama ordered the two Black Hawk helicopters carrying a team of special forces to raid the house in the nighttime of May 1, 2011, that was basically all the information he had.  None of it was obtained through torture.
The film maker defends her version of events, saying the movie doesn’t pretend to be a documentary.  But the film is made in the style of “cinema verite,” striving for graphic realism.  The nocturnal raid, for instance, is filmed through night vision goggles, giving the viewer a sense of boots-on-the-ground participation in the action.  Little about the movie suggests that it’s a work of fantasy.

But the idea that torture protects America, or has been a useful tool in the fight against terror, is pure fiction.  Inflicting torture on prisoners of war is not only contrary to our nation’s fundamental values, but is also counter-productive, since the victim will say anything he thinks his tormentor wants to hear.  Torture puts our own fighting forces at greater risk of receiving brutalized treatment when they fall into enemy hands. It has no place in civilized society or in defense planning. 

By suggesting otherwise, Zero Dark Thirty tortures the truth.  

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