Zero Dark Accountability

The Oscar nominated movie Zero Dark Thirty, a fictional account of the events leading up to the targeted killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, has generated a lot of debate about the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques.  The controversy stems from whether the film’s opening scene depicting the interrogation of an Al Qaeda detainee at a CIA “black site” suggests that coercive techniques yielded information that led to discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. 

Opinions have varied widely on the question of whether enhanced interrogations have produced useful intelligence.  Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Diane Feinstein recently described the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques at secret prisons as “terrible mistakes, while former CIA Director Michael Hayden has publicly defended the agency’s use of waterboarding and other techniques claiming that they produced valuable intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden.

While senior officials and commentators disagree over the effectiveness of coercive interrogation techniques, they are almost uniform in their belief that the CIA’s use of these techniques was completely separate from the more cruel, humiliating, and sadistic behavior, also portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, that occurred at U.S. military detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  Supporters and critics alike have acknowledged that CIA approved techniques differed widely from those that were used by U.S. military personnel in those facilities, such as extreme instances of forced nudity and humiliating detainees by walking them around in dog collars.

But a closer look at how interrogation policy was crafted shortly after 9/11 shows a remarkable similarity between the evolution of the military’s program and what is known about how the CIA’s interrogation policy developed. According to a 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report, CIA General Counsel John Rizzo and Chief Counsel to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Jonathon Fredman, both visited DOD personnel at Guantanamo Bay in the fall of 2002 to discuss “legal authorities applicable to interrogations (p. 53-4).” While commenting on the techniques the military proposed for use at Guantanamo, Fredman stated that the CIA decided internally on the approval of most of the techniques and relied on approval from the DOJ for the harshest of the techniques they were proposing (SASC Report p. 56).  Essentially the CIA was telling the DOD how far it could go in the conduct of coercive interrogations according to its own interpretation of current law. Chillingly, Friedman was reported to have said that “It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies you’re doing it wrong (SASC Report p. XVII).”

The eventual spread of coercive interrogation techniques from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib has been well documented, most thoroughly by Seymour Hersh in his 2004 book Chain of Command.  The fact that the military consulted the CIA along the way is less well known. Quoting from the report of MG Antonio Taguba that investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib Hersh writes, “Army intelligence officers, CIA agents, and private contractors ‘actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogations’ (Chain of Command p.29).” This is not to suggest that the CIA is responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib, but rather to caution against accounts suggesting that the CIA detention program had absolutely no bearing on what took place there.

The way the U.S. is perceived internationally for its treatment of detainees strongly impacts its national security. Whether the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are accurate or not, the CIA should not be able to continue to use Abu Ghraib as a shield against the scrutiny it rightly deserves.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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