Viewers and critics have been shocked by Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of enhanced interrogation techniques. But, if anything, the film goes way too easy on the CIA.
- By Laura PitterLaura Pitter is senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch.
Zero Dark Thirty, the movie drama of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has spawned a wide array of commentary. None is as misleading or morally disturbing, however, as the one from former CIA counterterrorism chief Jose Rodriguez, who seized on the film as an opportunity to defend — and completely distort — the CIA torture program he supervised. This from the guy who, ignoring instructions from the White House and CIA, destroyed 92 videotapes depicting the waterboarding of detainees in CIA custody, claiming it was to protect the identities of CIA operatives on the tapes.
In Rodriguez’s rosy version of events, the CIA program was "carefully monitored and conducted," bearing "little resemblance to what is shown on the screen." Most detainees, he claims, received "no enhanced interrogation techniques," and for those who did it was only after written authorization was obtained.
Zero Dark Thirty has many factual inaccuracies, about which U.S. senators with access to the classified record have publicly complained. More important is that the film may leave viewers with the false impression that the U.S. government’s use of torture was an ugly but necessary part of the fight against terrorism.
In Rodriguez’s rewrite, however, the torture program sounds like a well-guided walk in the park. What we know from released government documents and multiple interviews with people in the program, though, is that Rodriguez’s description of the program bears little resemblance to reality. Although the CIA did initiate guidelines requiring written permission before so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) were used, the CIA’s own inspector general’s report says these guidelines were not formalized until the end of January 2003, when EITs were already in use. And though the guidelines were an improvement, the inspector general said, they still left "substantial room for misinterpretation and [did] not cover all Agency detention and interrogation activities."
Research I did for a September 2012 Human Rights Watch report documented the experiences of five Libyan opponents of the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi probably detained under the CIA program. During their time in U.S. custody — ranging from eight months to two years — they said they were chained to walls in pitch-dark cells, often naked, sometimes while diapered, for weeks or months at a time; restrained in painful stress positions for as long as two weeks; forced into cramped spaces; beaten; repeatedly slammed into walls; kept inside for nearly three months without the ability to bathe or cut their hair or nails ("We looked like monsters," one detainee said); denied food and sleep; and subjected to continuous, deafeningly loud music. They were held incommunicado with no visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their families had no idea whether they were alive or dead. From released documents, we also know that techniques like placing a detainee with a known fear of bugs "in a cramped confinement box with an insect," and then falsely telling him it would sting, were approved for use.
Rodriguez claims, "No one was hung from ceilings" in the CIA program. Yet, of the five detainees interviewed for our report, two said they were restrained in cells with their hands above their heads. One said he was kept this way for three days while naked, forced to urinate on himself; the other said he was restrained with his hands above his head for about 15 days, in an extremely cold cell while naked except for a diaper. He was only taken out of the room about five times for questioning. A third detainee said he was restrained with his handcuffed wrists above his head while kept in a tall narrow box with speakers on both sides of his head, just inches from his ears, blasting loud music. He was in this box, naked, without food, for a day and a half. Other detainees have described similarly being restrained from above at what appears to be the same location.
Rodriguez also said, as have other CIA officials in the past, that only three detainees, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were waterboarded in the program — though the CIA qualified this a bit after our report came out, saying it was on record as having said there were only three "substantiated" cases of waterboarding. Yet one of the five Libyan detainees I spoke with (though not using the term "waterboarded") gave credible testimony that he was frequently strapped to a wooden board, with a hood over his head, while water was poured over his nose and mouth to the point that he felt like he would suffocate. Another detainee said he was threatened with use of the board but that it was never used on him.
Both said they were subjected to another type of suffocation-inducing water abuse that, like waterboarding, is a form of torture. Each was forced, separately, to lie in plastic sheeting, hooded, sometimes while naked, while guards poured icy cold water all over them, including over their nose and mouth, to the point where they felt they would suffocate. The men said doctors were present during both types of water torture, raising issues of medical ethics.
Moreover, Rodriguez doesn’t mention the number of times waterboarding was used on each detainee he acknowledges — 183 on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, at least 83 on Abu Zubaydah, and twice on Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — and the sensation of near death the practice produces.
Rodriguez also claims that "no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program," ignoring that some of the longest-lasting effects of torture are psychological. But many detainees others and we have interviewed, including the Libyans, did describe being beaten in the program, especially during transfer procedures. And some were sent to other countries by the CIA with the knowledge and understanding that they would be beaten and tortured there.
These are just a few of the details we know about the CIA program. Unfortunately, there is still a lot we do not know. We still don’t know, for example, all the names of those held as part of the program, how long they were detained, when they were released, and what happened to them. The details that are known have been pieced together by journalists and human rights workers tracking down former detainees, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and litigating.
The U.S. government has gone to great lengths to keep information about the program secret. The Justice Department refused to prosecute Rodriguez for destruction of evidence — those 92 videotapes depicting waterboarding — or any other senior U.S. official or CIA operative involved in the abuse for that matter, despite a four-year investigation. (Rodriguez was lightly reprimanded by the CIA.)
Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee recently produced a report — more than 6,000 pages long — that provides the most comprehensive information about the CIA’s torture program. Congress has yet to make the report public, though the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Dianne Feinstein, said it "uncovers startling details" about the program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight. She has also said it concludes that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective way to gain intelligence and did not lead to finding bin Laden. Rodriguez, who had left the CIA years before the bin Laden operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, asserts exactly the opposite, yet evidence that rebuts his claims remains classified.
This brings us to maybe the most frustrating thing about Rodriguez’s comments and this whole debate about Zero Dark Thirty. We would not even be having this debate, and this film probably would not have even been made in the way it was, had the U.S. government not gone to such great lengths over the past 11 years to cover up the tracks of its crimes and bury the facts. Make no mistake about it: These allegations amount to crimes.
What the United States is alleged to have done in its name is torture — practices prohibited by the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States and 152 other countries, and U.S. law under the Anti-Torture Act. It is also prohibited during times of war by the Geneva Conventions, again ratified by the United States and virtually every other country. The U.S. government’s authorization of torture during George W. Bush’s administration violated U.S. law and should be prosecuted.
It is deeply disappointing that President Barack Obama and the Justice Department have ignored these calls for sanction. In the absence of accountability, however, the least the United States should do is publicly acknowledge and explain the reasons that the use of torture was wrong and counterproductive.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report appears to be an opportunity to do just that. Calling the use of enhanced interrogation techniques a "terrible mistake," Feinstein said, "I also believe this report will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques." Yet while the report remains classified, available to just a handful of senators, CIA insiders like Rodriguez are free to say what they please, and unfortunately, the debate rages on.