Posted by on January 23, 2013 in Blog

In the past week there have been some great articles about the misleading torture narrative in Zero Dark Thirty, the popular movie chronicling the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

The film includes a depiction of the capture and torture of Abi Ahmad Al-Kuwaiti, a courier for Bin Laden who provides key information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. As a result Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone argues that “There’s no way to watch Zero Dark Thirty without seeing it as a movie about how torture helped us catch Osama bin Laden.”

According to Juan Cole on his blog Informed Comment, however, the primary fault of the film isn’t what it does portray, but rather what it leaves out: “Bad intelligence elicited by torture almost derailed that quest to put down al-Qaeda.”

He goes on to list the numerous ways that “enhanced interrogation techniques” frequently undermined and diverted efforts to undermine Al-Qaeda and locate Osama Bin Laden.

Taibbi also presents a telling list of some of the most glaring missteps of the torture program:

1)      Mohammed Al-Qatani, the so-called "20th hijacker," who may have been some part of the inspiration for the "Ammar" character who was tortured in the opening scene, might have been the first detainee to mention the name of bin Laden's courier. But as Gibney points out, al-Qatani gave that information up to the FBI, in legit, torture-free interrogations, before he was whisked away to Gitmo for 49 days of torture that included such insanities as forcing him to urinate on himself (by force-feeding him liquids while in restraints), making him watch a puppet show of him and bin Laden having sex, making him take dance lessons, making him wear panties on his head, and making him wear a "smiley-face" mask, along with the usual sleep and sensory deprivation, arm-hanging, etc. In other words, the key info may have come before they chucked our supposed standards for human decency.

2)      The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this "enhanced interrogation," the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture – so sure waterboarding was a "magic bullet," as Gibney put it to me – that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden's capture.

3)      The CIA took another detainee, Ibn al-Sheik al Libi, and duct-taped his head, put him in a wooden box, shipped him off to Cairo to be waterboarded, and got him to admit under torture that there were links between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. This "intel" became part of Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. on the need to invade Iraq. So while torture might have found us bin Laden, maybe, it also very well might have sent us on one of history's all-time pointlessly bloody wild goose chases, invading Iraq in search of WMDs.

All of these logistical and strategic shortcomings of the torture program say nothing of its moral reprehensibility, and the goodwill and dignity lost by American foreign policy in the decade since 9/11.

We’ve already written at length about the dramatic cost of these mistakes.

Ultimately, however, the movie serves not only to whitewash previous crimes, but also to glorify the very mistakes that undermined the “war on terror,” elevating our illegal and morally reprehensible actions into a misleading narrative of courage, perseverance, and success.

The danger of this type of glorification is two-fold: it paves the way for future transgressions and violations of basic human rights (consider Obama’s ever-expanding drone program for the latest manifestation of Executive excess), but it also implicitly ignores the true successes of the fight against Al-Qaeda, and the subtler, more nuanced, and less reprehensible actions that are all-too-often eclipsed by their bombastic, violent counterparts.

Juan Cole puts both problems into sharp focus at the end of his piece: “Instead of glorifying the genuine heroes who have mostly rolled up al-Qaeda… it covers many of them with the shame of war crimes.”


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