Opinion: Interrogation torture simply wrong

December 14, 2012


— Mark Boal, the screenwriter of the new movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” says he wanted to tell a story that conveyed the moral complexities of the hunt to kill Osama bin Laden. The debate that’s already churning around the film shows that he and director Kathryn Bigelow succeeded in that, and much else.

The movie tells the story of the relentless pursuit of bin Laden, seen through a character called “Maya,” who is based on one of the real-life CIA targeters who tracked down the al-Qaida leader. It was Maya’s good sense to focus on the courier, “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti,” who finally led the targeters to their prey.

But it’s a muted victory. In the haunting last scene of the film, Maya is seen sitting in a C-130 cargo plane at Bagram air base after she has identified bin Laden’s body. One of the crew asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t know what to answer, and this frames the uncertainty of America itself: What is it that we accomplished in killing bin Laden? At what cost? Where do we go next?

The debate about the film centers on what role torture played in pinpointing al-Kuwaiti, and then bin Laden himself. The film suggests that without “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Orwellian euphemism), Maya might not have made the match. The movie doesn’t “advocate” torture — which it shows in horrifyingly believable detail — but it does demonstrate how evidence gleaned from it led to bin Laden’s door. Could Maya have gotten there some other way? The film doesn’t speculate.

Some critics contend that the film is wrong because, first, torture is ineffective, and, second, bin Laden could have been found through other tactics. But I fear this argument softens the moral dilemma and overlooks part of the factual record. I asked intelligence officials to clarify some of the details, and they responded with information that may help audiences evaluate “Zero Dark Thirty” when it opens Dec. 19.

Let’s start with what Leon Panetta, then CIA director, said last year in a letter to Sen. John McCain, himself a victim of torture and one of its leading critics. Here’s an excerpt from the letter, written a week after the May 2 bin Laden raid:

“Nearly 10 years of intensive intelligence work led the CIA to conclude that bin Laden was likely hiding at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. ... Some of the detainees who provided useful information about the facilitator/courier’s role had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. Whether those techniques were the ‘only timely and effective way’ to obtain such information is a matter of debate and cannot be established definitively. What is definitive is that the information was only a part of multiple streams of intelligence that led us to bin Laden.”

So that’s a caution, at the outset: The role of harsh interrogation “cannot be established definitively.”

Let’s look specifically at information about the mysterious al-Kuwaiti. According to the intelligence officials, several dozen detainees provided information about him starting in 2002. Seven of the first eight detainees providing information were actually captives of foreign intelligence services, and the CIA can’t say if they were tortured. (The eighth was held by the U.S. military.)

The first mention that al-Kuwaiti was a courier for bin Laden came in 2003 from a CIA detainee who was harshly interrogated. Opponents of torture counter that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, lied about al-Kuwaiti — which, in their view, shows that the practice doesn’t work. But counterterrorism experts argue that the fact KSM concealed the courier’s role, even under duress, was actually a red flag, convincing the analysts of the courier’s importance.

Even without the torture-based information, “we still would have focused on (al-Kuwaiti) like a laser,” insists one intelligence official.

“Zero Dark Thirty” describes the analysts’ triumph in persistently following leads about the courier. But intelligence officials say the real breakthrough was obtaining his true name, Ibrahim Said, which was discovered in Kuwait through “old fashioned spy work” — presumably meaning the recruitment of a source with access to al-Qaida’s network. On that subject, senior officials are mum.

Here’s the bottom line, at least for me: We should oppose torture because it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t work. Perhaps the courier’s trail could have been found through other means; we’ll never know. President Obama was right to ban torture, but the public must understand that this decision carries a potential cost in lost information. That’s what makes it a moral choice.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

As pointed out, enhanced interrogation techniques is a euphemism for torture. Not engaging in that may lead to innocent lives lost. The reason this moral dilemma cannot be solved is because it's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The best we can hope for is that those charged with guiding our moral behavior act accordingly while those charged with protecting the lives of innocents do so as well.

Abdu Omar 5 years, 6 months ago

The whole concept of this movie and the killing of OBL is really the enigma. How certain are we, Americans, that OBL was in charge of this horendous act? There are so many videos about the destruction of the WTC that shows it was demolished in the way of professionals. Others say that the Israelis did it. Some others say that our own government did it. What is truth? I don't know but I don't think that 19 supposed foreign nationals could fly highly complicated Boing 767's into a building at mach speed. There were not accomplished pilots and they had never practiced on one to pinpoint that building from that speed or any speed.

We Americans have to demand the real truth and get our government to disclose it to us. I don't want to blame anyone, I don't think that OBL had the intelligence network that could have pulled this off. Perhaps he did, but I don't have proof. Do you?

Those who speak fluent Arabic said that his "confession" video was mistranslated by our government and he never admitted to doing this. Personally, I think Bush knew this and that is why he didn't pursue him like Obama did.

These are my opinions, please provide facts to prove me wrong.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 6 months ago

Your problem, wounded, is that with many incidents, you begin from the premise that certain people could not have done something, therefore, you seek facts, conjecture, innuendo, that might support your initial premise. Conversely, you are more than willing to blame certain people for acts of violence and then seek facts, conjecture, innuendo that might support that premise.

In the past, that has led you to conclusions that are not just wrongheaded, they are downright insane. Yes, you are entitled to your opinions. But you are not entitled to the facts. You may believe in whatever you want to believe.

This is the season of believing. You may believe in Santa for all it's worth. But just because NORAD tracks a certain sleigh each year, and yes, wounded, I've seen those reports, I've read them, I've seen them, doesn't mean they are credible. It doesn't mean a clear thinking individual should believe them. If one wants to be taken seriously, then within the ample literature, one must distinguish between the believable and the unbelievable. That is not something you've done in the past, nor from your comments here today, have you learned to do.

verity 5 years, 6 months ago

"Here’s the bottom line, at least for me: We should oppose torture because it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t work."

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