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Torture, 'torment' and 'Zero Dark Thirty'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 24, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Waterboarding. “Stress positions.” Sexual humiliation. Bombardment with “agonizing sounds” at “damaging decibel levels.”

Those who watched the film "Zero Dark Thirty" – a fictionalized account, supposedly based on fact, of the CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden – got a glimpse of those harsh interrogation techniques, which many would describe as torture.

And while the film’s Oscar competitor “Lincoln” is basking in bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill, "Zero Dark Thirty" has been targeted from several sides of the political spectrum – blasted by some for implying that near-torture elicited key information in the bin Laden hunt.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Ca., called the film a “dangerous” mix of “fact, fiction and Hollywood.” U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Az., who had endured torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said he was sickened by the movie’s portrayal of waterboarding. Both denied -- and implied that the film suggested -- that harsh interrogations played a key role in tracking down bin Laden.

But other lawmakers with knowledge of intelligence reports, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – a longtime member of the House Intelligence panel and, until this month, a member of the Senate committee – contend that there was evidence that some of the harsh interrogation was effective.

In an interview, Blunt said testimony from former intelligence officials “made it clear that we wouldn’t have had all the information we needed, particularly in the search for Osama bin Laden, if it hadn’t been for the willingness to get information in ways that the government at the time and the legal opinions at the time said was not torture – but clearly was not the kind of interrogation that you would put a U.S. citizen facing a criminal proceeding under.”

But is it fair to conduct “enhanced interrogation” of suspected terrorists – or, at times, people merely suspected of having knowledge of terrorists or their operations – using techniques that would never be allowed in this country?

Blunt said, “These are not U.S. citizens facing criminal proceedings. They are people who wanted to do harm to the United States, and I think it was important for find out what we needed to find out.”

For her part, "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, contended that her film’s depiction of the torture – or harsh interrogation – “doesn't mean it was the key to finding bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore.

In fact, Bigelow said it's her impression that bin Laden "was found due to ingenious detective work," rather than torture.

Describing herself as a pacifist, Bigelow said she backed “protests against the use of torture.” And she suggested that “some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.”

Will CIA nominee face interrogation questions in Senate?

The debate over “enhanced interrogation” – a rerun of the controversy late in President George W. Bush’s administration about the extent to which the ends justifies the means when it comes to gathering intelligence – has emerged at a sensitive time.

The Senate is about to consider the nomination of a new CIA director who knows the history of harsh interrogation: White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, who was the chief of staff under CIA director George Tenet when the Bush administration’s rendition and enhanced interrogations techniques were initiated.

While Brennan later was involved in classifying waterboarding as torture – and he claims that he had criticized aspects of the programs – his potential connection to rendition and enhanced interrogation during the Bush years was what kept him from being nominated as CIA chief four years ago, Senate insiders say.

On a separate track from confirming a new CIA director, the Senate Intelligence Committee last month approved by a 9-6 vote – but declined to release to the public – a 6,000-page document (a report with exhibits) that Democrats said found that harsh CIA interrogation measures did not result in significant intelligence breakthroughs.

Most of the Intelligence committee’s Republicans – including Blunt, who left the panel this month – reportedly voted against the report and blocked an initial effort to release unclassified portions of the report, which was three years in the making.

While Feinstein declined to discuss its specific findings, she issued a statement describing harsh interrogation and rendition (secret prisons abroad) as “terrible mistakes.” She added: “I also believe this report will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques.”

Separately, McCain – a war hero and the GOP presidential nominee in 2008 – wrote in a letter last month to Intelligence Committee members, denouncing torture and harsh interrogations as a means of gathering intelligence:

“What I have learned," McCain wrote, "confirms for me what I have always believed and insisted to be true – that the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is not only wrong in principle and a stain on our country’s conscience, but also an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence.”

But other Senate Republicans – including the Intelligence panel’s ranking GOP member, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. – criticized the report. In a statement, Chambliss said the document “contains a number of significant errors and omissions about the history and utility of CIA’s detention program.” Chambliss also wrote that authors had researched the report “without interviewing any of the people involved.”

In general, Senate Republicans – including Blunt – have stood by the assertions of high-level Bush administration officials, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, had provided important clues that eventually helped the CIA> track down the location of bin Laden, who was killed by Navy Seals in Pakistan in 2011.

In an interview, Blunt told the Beacon that his assessment of the impact of enhanced interrogation on intelligence gathering stemmed partly from testimony to the House Intelligence panel by Hayden and former Attorney Gen. Michael B. Mukasey, who served in that office from 2007-09. Earlier, Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft -- a former Missouri governor and U.S. senator -- had been involved in initial discussions of enhanced interrogation techniques.

In general, Bush administration officials had distinguished between torture – which they defined as extracting information by inflicting physical pain and long-term suffering – and what some call “torment,” which achieves psychological discomfort but does not cause permanent injury or disfigurement.

But such demarcations are rejected by Ramzi Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, who has represented prisoners presently or formerly held at U.S. facilities at Guantánamo Bay or at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Some of those prisoners have alleged that they were victims of torture in interrogations.

In an op-ed published by the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera, Kassem wrote recently that much of the debate about "Zero Dark Thirty" has focused on whether the film “leaves viewers with the false impression that torture led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.”

He added: “That both the means employed and the ends achieved in that equation are illegal and repugnant seems all but forgotten. Both torture and extrajudicial executions are anathema to civilized society, irrespective of their possible efficacy or expediency.”

But the film’s director, Bigelow, dismisses criticism that her film intended to glorify the interrogation techniques deployed by the CIA.

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement,” she wrote. “If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”