Zero Dark Thirty: Turning the Spotlight on US Use of Torture

Written by Ralph E. Stone. Posted in Arts/Entertainment, Opinion, Politics, War

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Published on January 07, 2013 with No Comments


Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the hunt and assassination of Osama bin Laden.

By Ralph E. Stone

January 8, 2013

Everybody knows that Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011.  The film Zero Dark Thirty involves the ten-year search for bin Laden, pitting Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, who believes bin Laden is likely hiding in plain sight, against the non-believers, which builds up to an action-packed climax where bin Laden is killed.  The title of the film is spy-jargon for “half past midnight,” the time of bin Laden’s death.

The film has become controversial as it shows graphic scenes of torture including waterboarding, beating, sleep deprivation, humiliation, and psychological torture at overseas black sites.   In response, Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain’s wrote  to Sony Pictures Entertainment claiming the movie “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”   Is this a case of these senators “shooting the messenger.”

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal countered saying, “We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.”

The filmmakers had the full cooperation of the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House in the making of the film.  Given this country’s use of torture in the past, I for one tend to believe that the film’s depiction of torture of POWs is accurate.

Let’s look back on some of the highlights, or lowlights if you will, on this country’s use of torture.  A good place to start is the infamous “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” training manual.  When interrogating “resistant sources,” the Kubark manual states, “The deprivation of stimuli induces regression by depriving the subject’s mind of contact with an outer world and thus forcing it in upon itself. At the same time, the calculated provision of stimuli during interrogation tends to make the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure.”

The Kubark manual is based on the notorious MK-ULTRA programme, where in the 1950s, the CIA suppled funds to scientists to carry out research into “unusual techniques of interrogation.”  One of the psychiatrists who received CIA funding was Donald Ewen Cameron, of Montreal’s McGill University. Cameron subjected hundreds of psychiatric patients to large doses of electroshock and total sensory isolation, and drugged them with LSD and PCP, which produces the “primary symptoms of schizophrenia.”  Similar techniques were used on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib.

According to Human Rights Watch, the US ran a detention facility near Kabul known as the “prison of darkness” – tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. “Plenty lost their minds,” one former inmate recalled. “I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors.”

And who can forget the U.S Army School of Americas (SOA), based in Fort Benning, Georgia, which trains Latin American military officers in interrogation and counterintelligence techniques.

Similar interrogation techniques found in the Kubark manuel were incorporated in the SOA training manuals. Is it any wonder that SOA graduates were responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America? In response to the controversy over SOA and protests by human rights activists, the SOA was officially “closed” in December 2000. But it reopened a month later as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation – in the same installations, with the same staff carrying out the same work, and still remains in operation although SOA Watch has been advocating its closure for years.

Remember when on April 16, 2009, President Obama released four top secret memos that allowed the CIA under the Bush administration to torture al Qaeda and other suspects held at Guantánamo and secret detention centers round the world.  According to the memos, ten techniques were approved: attention grasp (grasping the individual with both hands, one hand on each side of the collar opening, in a controlled and quick motion); walling (in which the suspect could be pushed into a wall); a facial hold; a facial slap; cramped confinement; wall standing; sleep deprivation; insects placed in a confinement box (the suspect had a fear of insects); and waterboarding.

In waterboarding, the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner which produces the perception of suffocation and incipient panic.

In the now-discredited August 2002 memorandum from then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee to then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez narrowly defined physical torture as requiring pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function, or even death.”

And we all remember former Vice President Dick Cheney’s comment that: “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture) sanctioned by the Bush administration are not torture and dismissed criticism as “contrived indignation and phony moralizing.”

And remember the torture conducted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Extraordinary renditions apparently continue to this day.  These are secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to other countries where torture is used. Torture is torture whether it is done by Americans at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, or by proxy through our rendition program.

As of October 3, 2012, there were still 166 detainees at Guantánamo Bay being held without charges, many of whom have been held for years. In addition, 50 detainees are considered too dangerous to release, but cannot be tried because the evidence against them is too flimsy or was extracted from them by coercion, so would not hold up in court. Thus, these detainees will be held indefinitely without charges or trial.  Amnesty International has described the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay as “the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law.”

Human torture is not only morally unacceptable – it is also a crime. Waterboarding, for example, is explicitly prohibited by the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis statement in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) explains why we should be concerned about what our government does in our name:

“Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that  are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe  the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole  people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites  every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the  end justifies the means — to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private  criminal — would bring terrible retribution. Against that pernicious doctrine this court should resolutely set its face.”

And torture does not work. It will make most ordinary people say anything the torturer wants.

Sadly, according to an August 2011 Pew Research poll, only 24 percent of those polled responded that torture is never justified to obtain important information from terrorists.  Too many Americans probably view the killing of Osama bin Laden justified the means to that end.

Senator Feinstein now wants the CIA to detail its contributions to the film Zero Dark Thirty, and even wants the filmmakers to include a disclaimer indicating the film is fiction, only based on a true story.  But shouldn’t the focus of any such inquiry be on whether the CIA still uses enhanced interrogation techniques?  If such techniques are still being used, then perhaps Feinstein’s oversight committee is not doing its job.

I call upon Senator Feinstein, the White House, and the CIA to publish with as few redactions as possible the 6,000 page Senate intelligence committee study on CIA interrogation and detention to inform the public debate about torture.  The report should help set the record straight.

By the way, I highly recommend Zero Dark Thirty.  Americans should see another example of what is being done in their name.

Ralph E. Stone

I was born in Massachusetts; graduated from Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School; served as an officer in the Vietnam war; retired from the Federal Trade Commission (consumer and antitrust law); travel extensively with my wife Judi; and since retirement involved in domestic violence prevention and consumer issues.

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