Brennan, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and the torture firestorm

February 7, 2013

Controversy over the U.S. use of torture erupted again with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama has now added fuel to this fire by nominating John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser, to be CIA director.

Brennan was deputy CIA director when the agency was engaged in rendition and torture. He was, as reported by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, a supporter of enhanced interrogation techniques and in 2005 described the rendition program as “absolutely vital” ‑ though he has since condemned waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with the words “based on firsthand accounts of actual events,” then quickly moves into a lengthy, horrific torture sequence. After a detailed dramatization of the hunt, the movie ends with Americans killing bin Laden ‑ leading many viewers to believe that torture was crucial to the successful outcome.

Although widely praised by critics, the film gives the wrong impression about the value of enhanced interrogation. The Senate Intelligence Committee has completed a 6,000-page report, based on a three-year investigation and 6 million pages of CIA records, that flatly declares that “enhanced interrogation techniques” played no role in the bin Laden killing and are of no value. That report remains classified.

Yet the film was quickly attacked by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) “because it’s wrong” about the efficacy of torture. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, and McCain in January announced that they would jointly investigate the CIA’s communication with the filmmakers.

The same day the Intelligence Committee report was issued, the European Court of Human Rights issued an 85-page opinion unanimously finding that Khaled el-Masri, a German national, had been tortured by the CIA in the mistaken belief that he was a terrorist.

Torture is illegal under both U.S. and international law, as well as immoral. Recent studies at Stanford University and elsewhere have found, however, that TV spy shows like 24 convinced a large number of Americans that torture is effective and should be used ‑ regardless of any moral or legal qualms.

Yet evidence of its effectiveness remains dubious. While the price we pay for whatever information we gain from torture is high ‑ especially when using techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and other abuses that we condemn when used by others.

Washington’s use of such techniques has led to charges of hypocrisy. The United States’ moral standing and its overall ability to lead have been undermined. The CIA’s secret interrogation program has also bred mistrust of U.S. justice, both here and abroad. As Levin has observed, if someone as dangerous as Khalid Sheik Mohamed, who was involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks, provides some information, “half the world wonders if they can believe him … because people think they [the CIA] rely on torture.

Moreover, once torture becomes acceptable, it becomes routine. The goal is to reduce the suspect to “full compliance” and if he refuses to talk, the techniques get more “enhanced.” The moral character of both the torturer and the society that condones it is corrupted. A former CIA officer told Mayer about one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogators, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul.”

Just how far “over that line” the CIA went can be seen in the Khaled el-Masri case.

El-Masri, a Bavarian car salesman, had the bad luck of having a name similar to that of a suspected terrorist. According to the European Court, as soon as CIA agents took custody of him in January 2004, he was handcuffed and blindfolded. He was then stripped, sodomized and brutally beaten.

According to the court, this treatment “was remarkably consistent with a recently disclosed CIA document describing the protocol for the “capture shock treatment” designed to soften up the target for the interrogation.

El- Masri was then flown to Afghanistan. According to his allegations, key elements of which were confirmed by DNA evidence, there he was slammed against the concrete walls and the floor of a filthy, dark cell known as the “Salt Pit,” questioned harshly with insults and threats, and kicked and beaten on his head and neck.

Approximately three months into el-Masri’s detention, the CIA realized its mistake. He was held for an additional two weeks, then blindfolded, flown to Albania, a reliable CIA partner, dropped on a road in the woods and warned not to tell anyone about what had happened. The Albanians then put el-Masri, a broken man, on a commercial airliner for a flight back to Germany.

How many other innocent suspects have been brutalized? We’ll probably never know. Obama has refused to authorize any inquiry into Bush’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “extraordinary rendition” policies, much less hold anyone accountable. The Intelligence Committee may know, but their report is classified and no specifics have been revealed.

A few innocent CIA torture victims have been compensated by countries including Canada, Britain, Australia and Sweden, which had all participated in rendering these hapless people to countries that practice torture or to CIA “black sites.” The United States, however, not only refuses to compensate these victims, but with the help of compliant federal judges has blocked every effort to seek some redress or even disclosure of what happened, including El- Masri’s case.

The public also does not know how much reliable or useful information this brutalization produced. It has been well documented that someone being tortured will say anything to stop the pain. “We’ve been searching for evidence for six years,” General David Irvine, a retired Army interrogation instructor, told NPR recently, “that enhanced interrogation has made the nation safer. And we’re still looking.”

The day after bin Laden was killed,  then-CIA Director Leon Panetta cautioned: “Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively.”

That’s not enough to justify this policy, especially since we do know what works. The FBI and experienced CIA interrogators all agree that befriending the suspect and gaining his confidence is the most effective way to obtain reliable information. General Stanley McCrystal, in his recent memoir, My Share of the Task, writes that when hunting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. forces captured a group of high-level detainees. Assuring the detainees that there would be no abuse, the U.S. interrogators gained their trust, and “confronting them in moral language,” obtained much useful information.

Zero Dark Thirty probably leaves most viewers with the impression that torture was the key to finding bin Laden. But Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, in a letter to agency employees soon after the film was released, wrote that this “impression is false.”

Panetta has explained:

We first learned about the facilitator/courier’s nom de guerre, [the key information] from a detainee not in CIA custody in 2002, [and] no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts.

Though one detainee in CIA custody did provide information on the courier, according to Feinstein and Levin, “he did so the day before he was interrogated by the CIA, using their coercive interrogation techniques.”

The film also lacks even a hint of serious moral or legal concerns. Yet some FBI and CIA agents challenged these policies as morally and legally wrong ‑ as well as counterproductive. As former CIA interrogator Tony Camarino, who conducted some 300 interrogations in Iraq, explained, “If you use coercion, you might get the location of a house. But if you get somebody to cooperate, they’ll tell you it if it’s booby-trapped.”

Justice Louis Brandeis, 85 years ago, described the government as the “omnipresent teacher.” Today, movies and TV share that authority.  As Amy B. Zegart, who commissioned the Stanford study, noted, “Entertainment has an alarming impact.”

For many Americans today, movies are where they “learn” history. Unfortunately, Zero Dark Thirty will be where they get their history about the hunt for bin Laden.

That is why the Intelligence Committee must make public as much of its report as possible. Since the Bush and Obama administrations have blocked any effort by Americans to learn about the program, this committee report provides the only chance Americans will have to learn and think about what was done in their name.

Until they do, the torture controversy will continue to haunt our public life.

PHOTO (Top): John Brennan, nominee for CIA director, arrives at a meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill in Washington January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PHOTO (Insert A): Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein meets with John Brennan, nominee for CIA Director, on Capitol Hill in Washington January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PHOTO (Insert B): Khaled el-Masri, a German national allegedly kidnapped by the CIA in late 2003, addresses the temporary committee of the European Parliament in Strasbourg March 13, 2006.  REUTERS/Vincent Kessler


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“General Stanley McCrystal, in his recent memoir, My Share of the Task, writes that when hunting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. forces captured a group of high-level detainees. Assuring the detainees that there would be no abuse, the U.S. interrogators gained their trust, and “confronting them in moral language,” obtained much useful information.”

Someone should ask McChrystal why his portrayal of the JSOC interrogations that led to Zarqawi totally contradicts the accounts of Mark Bowden in his 2007 Atlantic Monthly piece “The Ploy.”

Bowden wrote that “the real story is more complicated and interesting.” And, his story is backed up by Mark Urban in “Task Force Black” (“multiple sources have confirmed to me the accuracy of Bowden’s article”) and interrogator Matthew Alexander in “How to Break A Terrorist” (“We found Zarqawi in spite of the way the task force did business”).

McChrystal’s “official story” portrays a false account of Mubbassir’s interrogation that led to the killing of Zarqawi. Supposedly JSOC interrogators Amy, Jack and Paul developed rapport and trust with him over the course of several weeks and rewarded him with breakfast. Later, they listened to the radio together and ate ice cream! (McChrystal, p. 210-211).

However, in reality, Alexander wrote how all three of these interrogators were “the old guard, who were at Guantanamo and did previous tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. They believe in fear-and-control methods but now they’re being forced to play by the rules … They’ve never built rapport with these guys, gotten to know them as people or earned their trust. Why do they think any of their strategies are going to work?”

Alexander wrote (p. 185, “How to Break a Terrorist”) about Paul [Lenny] saying, “****ing muj. Just show him who is boss.”…“Sympathy won’t work. Control 101 is the first lesson in interrogation”…”Tear down his self-respect.” Your’re Totally Screwed routine.” But, McChrystal would have his readers believe that this is the same guy who hung out with Mussabir eating ice cream and listening to the radio!

Alexander had to do an end-run around JSOC to get the key intel from Mussabir; he got in just a few hours what JSOC’s “best” interrogators had failed to get in three weeks!

For details, see the chapter, “That’s One Dead SOB” in “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” — The Dark Legacy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, posted at the Feral Firefighter blog.

Posted by GuyMontag999 | Report as abusive

“As former CIA interrogator Tony Camarino, who conducted some 300 interrogations in Iraq, explained…”

Correction: Tony Camerino (not Camarino)was an Air Force interrogator (not CIA) assigned to JSOC’s Task Force 145 for three months in 2006. He wrote two books about his experience and key role in the interrogations that led to Zarqawi (and other insurgent leaders) under the pen name of “Matthew Alexander.”

Posted by GuyMontag999 | Report as abusive

I hope people will understand that Bush Administration CIA officials like John Brennan and Jose Rodriguez have an interest in self justification that renders their views on “enhanced interrogation” extremely biased. I predict that after many more years pass and those that remain are old men and the last remote possibility of prosecution has fully ended that one or more of these CIA insiders will come clean and admit that they did was wrong and that they lied about what they did in order to cover themselves.

Posted by Adam_Smith | Report as abusive

If Zero Dark Thirty left viewers with “the impression” that torture “was key” to finding bin Laden, then it is the viewers’ fault. Because Zero Dark Thirty objectively doesn’t create that impression.

Posted by LucasCorso | Report as abusive