Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Greater Context for Zero Dark Thirty

Obviously, this long-delayed (and lengthy) post contains spoilers (to the degree that they're possible for a film where the climax's outcome is known). Zero Dark Thirty has been much debated, as a movie in isolation and as a docudrama purporting to cover recent history. The film raises many issues of artistic rights and responsibilities, and has received a wide range of responses. (I gave a shorter overview as part of my annual film roundup; it's the last review here.) The responses also reveal that the greater context of the U.S. torture program specifically and the history of torture generally remain largely unknown by the public and ignored by pundits. (This piece is essentially multiple overlapping posts in one.)

The Movie Experience

I couldn't watch this film in a state of innocence, but I can honestly discuss my experience watching it. Rotten Tomatoes and other sites can give a better view of a typical viewing experience. (The film's gotten high marks overall.) Despite a few caveats, I liked The Hurt Locker, the previous collaboration of director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (It's the first film reviewed here.) I regard it as a much better film, both as a thriller/war movie and because its problematic elements are far less significant.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film about the hunt for bin Laden, and starts with a blurb that says, "Based on first-hand accounts of actual events." This is both an explicit and implicit promise from the filmmakers – a reasonable viewer would expect that they've had to take some artistic license, but that the story is authentic in its essentials. (Jonathan Stamp, the chief historical consultant for the series Rome, said their goal was to achieve authenticity, not strict accuracy. This is a reasonable standard for all true-life stories, although some choices might require extra care.) This promise is a crucial aspect of Zero Dark Thirty's aesthetic, which is filmed (as was The Hurt Locker and United 93) in a docudrama style. Its promised authenticity is supposed to give it added punch. Believe this promise and the moviegoing experience will be very different from the experience had if one doubts it. I knew about some of the accuracy issues with Zero Dark Thirty going in, from reading a few pieces on the film and my own previous research on the subject matter. Because of this, it didn't take long for me to hit a scene where I thought, "Wait a minute…" and was pulled out of the movie. I watched in a fairly detached manner, evaluating its artistic and adaptation choices.

The early section of the film features multiple scenes of torture and abuse with some break-up (apparently, this goes on for about 40 minutes, but I haven't seen a strict breakdown). Narratively, these become repetitive to the point of gratuitousness, so aesthetically, their main function seems to be establishing the film is "gritty" and "realistic." (I found these scenes extremely problematic not in terms of subject matter but because of denied context, but more on that below.) The film roughly goes: Torture, the New Search for bin Laden, Maya Against her Bosses, and The Raid. The "Search" section has the most subchapters, and I found it the most interesting. There's a great series of scenes where the team tries to locate a likely bin Laden contact; they know he calls his family occasionally, but he uses disposable phones and drives around while on the calls, making him extremely hard to find and track. It's these scenes, and the scenes of camaraderie and exhaustion between Maya (Jessica Chastain) and some of her colleagues (most of all Jennifer Ehle as Jessica) that were the best in the movie for me – tense action scenes, alternating with a decent look at how grueling (and even boring) counterterrorism work can be. The other sections didn't work as well for me. The torture scenes are the most problematic in terms of accuracy and artistic choices, but they are far from the only problems with the film. The Raid is well-staged for the camera, and the mission's covert nature adds some tension, but I found it lacked suspense because we know the outcome. Even if somehow one didn't, and viewed it as a stand-alone action sequence divorced from context, the Americans are so much more high-tech and better armed there's not really much question they're going to prevail. Less tension comes from getting the kill than from getting in and out in time, what with an advancing crowd, a helicopter malfunction, incoming Pakistani forces, and trying to grab as many information records as possible from the facility in the time remaining. Meanwhile, I found the "Maya Against her Bosses" section pretty bad, for the most part – to my dismay, it strained plausibility and smacked of clichéd, second-rate filmmaking. Here's the clip Jonathan Schwarz found in December:

(Schwarz' post is well worth reading.) In defense of Bigelow and Boal, this is probably the worst scene in the entire film, the most poorly written, the most overwrought and black-and-white in terms of conflict. Chastain's a talented actress, and I've been a fan of her work, and Kyle Chandler's normally not bad, either. I honestly felt embarrassed for them watching this, and for Bigelow and Boal. It's just painful, the old clichéd maverick cop defying his or her chickenshit boss bit. In the context of the movie, this scene doesn't play as, "obviously everyone in the CIA wants to stop terrorism, but disagree about strategy and tactics, and Maya's so passionate and quixotic she steps over the line here." That could have worked – and some earlier scenes in the "Search" section use those dynamics somewhat, with Maya prone to stepping on toes, often unnecessarily. But this scene, like many in the "Maya Against her Bosses" section, is played and contextualized as Maya being right and everybody else being wrong. She's the clear heroine at this point, and we're supposed to be rooting for her. I found these scenes pulled me out of the movie, and made me wonder why, if Bigelow and Boal chose to take such artistic license elsewhere for the sake of a 'gritty and realistic' aesthetic, they chose to go for such occasionally cartoonish conflict in this section? Chastain's performance is quite good overall, and she sells the lousier scenes as well as anyone could, but we don't truly get to know Maya. That's part of Bigelow and Boal's point – that Maya's a woman defined by her mission, and when it's done, who is she? However, it also hurts a deeper engagement with the film.

Obviously, "your mileage may vary" with this film; some people loved it. (Moreover, some people claimed that the film proved torture worked while others felt it showed that it didn't. Peter Bergen has one of the better assessments on this front, but much more on this issue below.) I thought that The Hurt Locker had great merits as a thriller, but that it portrayed more of "an emotional/psychological truth than a literal one… Thinking it's got documentary-level realism would be a mistake." The same faults mar Zero Dark Thirty, but "documentary-level realism" is a crucial element for it in a way it wasn't for The Hurt Locker, and the stakes of straying from that standard, especially after promising it, are much higher with Zero Dark Thirty. I found that Jane Mayer summed up my feelings pretty well when she wrote, "Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn. But maybe the creators of “Zero Dark Thirty” should care a little bit more."

Artistic Freedom (and the Seductive Narrative)

To be clear, I support Bigelow and Boal's right to make whatever film they want, good, bad, or any mix in between. It's also appropriate that journalists, government officials, and other filmmakers fact-check Zero Dark Thirty's version of recent history. I wasn't crazy, however, about Congress announcing an investigation into the filmmakers' sources at the CIA (such an investigation has since been dropped). While I suspect the leaking was highly selective and self-serving, such investigations have an overall chilling effect. A better solution would be to declassify the Senate Intelligence Committee's 6,300 page report on detention, interrogation and torture. (As of this writing, some politicians have been pushing to at least release the roughly 300 page executive summary of the full report.)

My theory is that the main problems occurred because the production time was extremely tight and, as filmmaker Alex Gibney puts it diplomatically, Boal and Bigelow were seduced by their sources (more below). Consequently, they excluded a mountain of other contradictory evidence and accounts, including material raising questions about the real Maya's credibility and culpability. (I suspect they didn't even know about the other stuff in any depth, or dismissed it out of hand. But to my dismay, they've got plenty of company, including reporter Mark Bowden, who apparently knows the final raid pretty well, but not key events in the preceding years. Perhaps fodder for another post.)

Bin Laden's death was announced in May 2011. Zero Dark Thirty had a limited release in December 2012 (to give it Oscar eligibility) and wide release in January 2013, but it was apparently finished earlier. It was originally slotted for release in October 2012, but Obama opponents charged that the timing was to help Obama's reelection, and the studio rescheduled. That means Bigelow and Boal had roughly 17 months to do all their research, write a script, do preproduction, film the movie, and finish postproduction. That's a fairly tight schedule for a major studio picture. Given the complexity and sensitivity of the subject matter and the technical challenges of the actual production, it's not much time. Bigelow and Boal had been developing a project about bin Laden and the raid on Tora Bora, which gave them some general background, but apart from 9/11, all of the events depicted in Zero Dark Thirty occurred after Tora Bora. Marc Boal has said, "I didn't know much about the intelligence hunt leading up to it," that he had "a couple of months" for research, and took "five months to write it." That five months apparently includes the "couple" of months for research; the draft released for Oscar consideration has a date of 10/3/11, Chastain was cast in late November, and they starting filming in early 2012. According to Boal, the screenplay had only one draft (I'm assuming only one major draft; he still would have done tweaks and polishes, and it's confirmed he made some changes). Boal had worked with Bigelow before, so they likely have a shorthand for collaboration, he had some contacts that he developed during the Tora Bora project, and as a former reporter, he knows how to write to deadline (although screenplays are a different beast from articles). Still, by any measure, he cranked this one out rapidly. The studios, and presumably Bigelow and Boal, wanted to aim for the 2012 Oscars and awards season, and they wanted to be the first major film out of the gate on the bin Laden raid. All this necessitated an accelerated, tight schedule.

On top of all this, Boal described parts of his screenplay to the CIA and changed parts of the script based on their feedback. Early on (July 2011), CIA Director of Public Affairs George Little e-mailed Boal to say, "I can't tell you how excited we all are (at DOD and CIA) about the project." Michael Hayden, a former CIA head (who has been worried about being prosecuted for war crimes) made some criticisms of the finished film, but also said, "On balance, I liked it. I’m glad it was made." Little and Boal might have engaged in some mutual bullshitting, but evidenced by the choices Boal made in his screenplay, I'd argue that he was insufficiently skeptical of his CIA sources and did not crosscheck their tales against other accounts (more below). If you read the released e-mails linked above, the CIA approached Zero Dark Thirty with a damage control mentality, at least in part. ("This clearly raises unpleasant history, but the events are derived from open-sources" – and thus cannot be plausibly denied. Similarly, "CIA personnel involvement in the raid has been speculated in reporting and is something Boal would have likely fictionalized.") Although the CIA couldn't prevent the movie from being made altogether or excise all the warts, they wanted the most favorable account possible given the circumstances, and it looks like they mostly got it. (Bigelow and Boal are too skilled to serve up a blatantly jingoistic tale, but while the CIA characters do not all come off great in the movie, a more unflinching account would have shown them looking far worse.)

If the project had been less rushed and more thoroughly researched, would it have come out significantly better in terms of accuracy? Perhaps not, but I respect Bigelow and Boal's abilities enough that I'd like to think so, that they would have made better decisions, and shown more skepticism and reflection, had expediency not been such a huge factor. Their decision smacks of some hubris to me. Regardless, commercial and award considerations influenced the artistic process and many of the choices made, most of all, I would say, with the level of research, choice of sources, and choice of story. For the other end of the spectrum, consider Lincoln, which Steven Spielberg started developing in 2001, going through three screenwriters and countless drafts in the process until he was happy with the script. The final screenwriter, Tony Kushner, claims to have read about 20 books on Lincoln during his research process. The film Lincoln has its critics, some with valid points, but overall, it's a good film (I reviewed it here). Of course, Spielberg has the luxury of keeping a major project in development while doing other things, and obviously Bigelow and Boal shouldn't need and wouldn't want to take 11 years to release their bin Laden movie. But there's plenty of middle ground, and racing to make a film "ripped from the headlines" for Oscar season is a choice.

To reiterate, while I support Bigelow and Boal's artistic rights to make any film they want (and I'm a fan of Chastain and some of the other actors), I question many of their artistic choices. The docudrama aspect makes the issue much more pertinent than it would be otherwise, because the explicit and implicit promises that 'we've gotten the essence right, even if we change some particulars' is a key part of both their aesthetic and the viewing experience. And hey, I want to root for the filmmaking team, but.. Basically, I think they wanted to make a film about a plucky heroine who fights her bosses to bring a terrorist to justice at great personal cost (and there's a grain of truth there), but when they settled on that story, it required outright dismissal of many other accounts and precluded many other artistic choices. They wound up eliminating drama that actually occurred and inventing conflict where there wasn't.

I'm not saying that Bigelow and Boal needed to make the movie I would have made. I am saying that had they done proper research and been more skeptical about some of their sources, it's unlikely that they would have made the most problematic of the artistic choices that they did.

Background and Context

The accuracy issues (and their relation to aesthetic choices) in Zero Dark Thirty are best covered by Jane Mayer, Steve Coll, Alex Gibney, Peter Bergen, and Ali Soufan. I'll quote a bit from them, but their pieces really should be read in full. The key points are, however, that critical information was obtained without torture, there is still no proof that critical information was obtained through torture, and the use of torture was strongly challenged inside the government by members of the FBI, CIA, Pentagon staff and the Justice Department. For a taste, from the first link from FBI interrogator Soufan:

In fact, torture led us away from Bin Laden. After [Khalid Shaikh] Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, he actually played down the importance of the courier who ultimately led us to Bin Laden. Numerous investigations, most recently a 6,300-page classified report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have reached the same conclusion: enhanced interrogation didn’t work. Portraying torture as effective risks misleading the next generation of Americans that one of our government’s greatest successes came about because of the efficacy of torture. It’s a disservice both to our history and our national security.

Jane Mayer, like many others, points out the real-life drama that was excised from the film:

After some critics called Bigelow a torture apologist, she defended the fairness and historical accuracy of her movie. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience,” she told my New Yorker colleague Dexter Filkins, who interviewed her for a Talk of the Town piece. At a Los Angeles press junket, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, complained that critics were “mischaracterizing” the torture sequences: “I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental. But I think that what the film does over the course of two hours is show the complexity of the debate.” His point was that because the film shows multiple approaches to intelligence gathering, of which torture is only one tactic, and because the torture isn’t shown as always producing correct or instant leads, it offers a nuanced answer to the question of whether torture works.

But whether torture “worked” was far from the most important question about its use. I’ve seen the film and, as much as I admired Bigelow’s Oscar-winning picture “The Hurt Locker,” I think that this time, by ignoring the full weight of the dark history of torture, her work falls disturbingly short. To begin with, despite Boal’s contentions, “Zero Dark Thirty” does not capture the complexity of the debate about America’s brutal detention program. It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.

To establish a baseline of moral awareness, she shows her heroine—a C.I.A. counterterrorism officer called Maya, played by Jessica Chastain—delicately wincing as she hands the more muscled interrogators a pitcher of water with which to waterboard a detainee. Maya is also shown standing mutely by when the detainee is strung up by ropes, stripped naked, and forced to crawl in a dog collar. In reality, when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size “confinement box,” as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible. The fight went all the way to the top of the Bush Administration. Bigelow airbrushes out this showdown, as she does virtually the entire debate during the Bush years about the treatment of detainees.

As for the film's treatment of torture (which we'll discuss further), Peter Bergen's reaction to a key scene is the same as mine:

The one time the president does appear in "Zero Dark Thirty" is in a clip from a "60 Minutes" interview in which he criticizes the use of "torture." By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al Qaeda detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy.

In the film, the CIA agents scoff at Obama's reaction; they're incredulous and feel at least slightly betrayed. It's hardly a neutral or ambiguous scene, especially given the hero status of Maya and the other agents at this point. (It's also of a piece with the other "maverick cop" elements in the film.) Moreover, Obama's words have been decontextualized, since the filmmakers choose to avoid any treatment of not only the Bush administration decisions to commit torture but the internal opposition to these decisions. (But more later.)

On the film, there's also Karen Greenberg, Matt Taibbi, Peter Rainer, Greg Mitchell, and Emily Bazelon.

(For general information, Marcy Wheeler's 2009 piece, "The 13 People Who Made Torture Possible," is a good introduction to the officials who do not feature at all in Zero Dark Thirty. I'd recommend the torture archives of Scott Horton, Marcy Wheeler and Dan Froomkin, among others. I'll also link my own pieces, which I'll crib from a bit here, sometimes verbatim. The most useful thing may be the "Further Resources" section of this post.)

The "debate" about torture should not occur in a vacuum. As usual, I'll say: The more one seriously studies torture, the more likely one is to oppose it, and the more one studies the record of the Bush administration, the less likely one is to buy their defenses of good faith. Years ago, perhaps I would have bought some of the common torture myths and misinformation out there myself. Yet the subject is grave enough that it merits serious study, and I would ask anyone inclined to endorse or excuse torture (perhaps thinking it's the sign of an open mind) to take a closer look (and to consider their sources). Even if one believes that torture "works" (much more on this below), it remains a threshold decision not to considered lightly, and not to be driven by fear, anger, or machismo. Opposing torture and supporting it are not equally valid and respectable positions – the overwhelming burden of proof is on torture proponents and apologists, just as a doctor would first need to justify the radical act of amputating a patient's hand before proceeding. These are not mere thought experiments. There is a historical record. There are data. Real human beings have been affected.

Torture is (1) immoral, (2) illegal, (3) endangers us (especially American troops in the Middle East), and (4) doesn't "work" – unless one wants to inflict pain, terrorize the populace, produce bogus intelligence or elicit false confessions. It's not that torture never produces a true statement, but it is notorious for producing unreliable intelligence. Torture is about power, not truth. Jason Clarke's character Dan in Zero Dark Thirty says, "In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It's biology." But that's not quite true. Everyone might "break" in the sense that he or she will beg for the torture to stop, but torture does not "break" them in the sense of making them tell the truth. The history of torture is full of examples of torturers who were absolutely convinced their victims knew some vital piece of information and were holding it back, when in fact they weren't. If the goal is to obtain accurate intel, asking, "How much pain can we inflict on this prisoner without breaking the law?" is the wrong question, and leads down a dangerous path. As Rear Admiral John Hutson put it when testifying to Congress, "Torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough."

A. Torture is unreliable for producing accurate intelligence. False confessions occur even without torture, but torture is notorious for producing false confessions and bad intelligence. To get the pain to stop, the torture victim will say what he thinks the torturer wants to hear. SERE instructor Malcolm Nance has described meeting a Cambodian torture victim who explained how, "in torture, he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia." The torturer need not be a sadist; many torturers believe they are acting for the good of their country. But torture interrogations represent the most terrible and dangerous form of confirmation bias.

Torture's inefficacy for accurate intelligence may not be well-known to the general public (certainly not anyone who believes the show 24 is accurate), but it's long been known by professional interrogators. For instance, the relevant Army Field Manual (in effect before and during the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) explains directly (emphasis added):

The GWS, GPW, GC, and US policy expressly prohibit acts of violence or intimidation, including physical or mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to inhumane treatment as a means of or aid to interrogation.

Such illegal acts are not authorized and will not be condoned by the US Army. Acts in violation of these prohibitions are criminal acts punishable under the UCMJ. If there is doubt as to the legality of a proposed form of interrogation not specifically authorized in this manual, the advice of the command judge advocate should be sought before using the method in question.

Experience indicates that the use of prohibited techniques is not necessary to gain the cooperation of interrogation sources. Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.

Revelation of use of torture by US personnel will bring discredit upon the US and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort. It also may place US and allied personnel in enemy hands at a greater risk of abuse by their captors. Conversely, knowing the enemy has abused US and allied PWs does not justify using methods of interrogation specifically prohibited by the GWS, GPW, or GC, and US policy.

Army Field Manual 34-52, Intelligence Interrogation, 1992, p. 1-8 [PDF p. 14].

The manual goes on to explain what techniques are permitted and banned. Later sections explain in far more detail how to plan and conduct an interrogation, good and bad questions, etcetera. (This version has since been replaced, not without controversy, but torture is still prohibited.) A 2002 JPRA (Joint Personnel Recovery Agency) memo also made the same warnings, that torture provides unreliable intelligence and potentially endangers American personnel.

Again, this is not secret knowledge. The ancient Romans used torture as punishment, but statements obtained through torture were inadmissible (against Roman citizens, that is) for this very reason – such statements were known to be unreliable.

Furthermore, it is not surprising that torture techniques used by the Soviets, Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge (among others) to obtain false confessions would… produce false confessions. It would be difficult to seriously study the history of torture without learning this. Consider: Unless you truly believe in Satanic witchcraft – unless you believe that all those thousands of people tortured through the centuries under the Inquisition and other groups really were in league with the Devil and actually gained black magic powers – you know that torture can produce false confessions. You also know that torturers can be absolutely certain they know the truth and that they are acting for the greater good – and can be absolutely wrong. (And no, modern techniques are not that different, and the torturer's mentality is definitely not that different.) One of the many reasons torture is prohibited is because of these dynamics. It turns out that gut feelings, no matter how strongly held, can be wrong.

B. Torture spreads in a system. Torture apologists sometimes propose that torture should only be committed in certain rare, dire circumstances (the "ticking time bomb") and by a certain authorized group. However, while torture should never be committed in the first place, historically, "selective use of torture" does not work; invariably, torture and abuse spread in a system.

One of the better op-eds on torture is 2007's "It's Our Cage, Too." (The authors: "Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994.")

We have served in combat; we understand the reality of fear and the havoc it can wreak if left unchecked or fostered. Fear breeds panic, and it can lead people and nations to act in ways inconsistent with their character.

The American people are understandably fearful about another attack like the one we sustained on Sept. 11, 2001. But it is the duty of the commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not into its grasp. Regrettably, at Tuesday night's presidential debate in South Carolina, several Republican candidates revealed a stunning failure to understand this most basic obligation. Indeed, among the candidates, only John McCain demonstrated that he understands the close connection between our security and our values as a nation.

Tenet insists that the CIA program disrupted terrorist plots and saved lives. It is difficult to refute this claim -- not because it is self-evidently true, but because any evidence that might support it remains classified and unknown to all but those who defend the program.

This has remained a consistent theme of the torture "debate." Almost if not all claims that torture "worked" insist that classified documents prove it, or else merely amount to personal opinion (invariably from self-interested versus disinterested parties). The same cannot be said of anti-torture advocates. Furthermore, as documents have been declassified, they have consistently undercut claims about torture's efficacy and necessity. (There is a reason torture apologists do not want to talk about the historical record and stack of reports.) Krulak and Hoar continue (emphasis added):

These assertions that "torture works" may reassure a fearful public, but it is a false security. We don't know what's been gained through this fear-driven program. But we do know the consequences.

As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the military's mental health assessment report released earlier this month. The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners in some situations. This underscores what we know as military professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.

This has had disastrous consequences. Revelations of abuse feed what the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was drafted under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "recuperative power" of the terrorist enemy.

Soviet-era torture victim Vladimir Bukowsky, in a striking piece called "Torture's Long Shadow," makes a similar point (emphasis added):

Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions, investigators and detectives in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically speaking, they have a "ticking bomb" case on their hands. But, much as a good hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey lest he be left empty-handed. Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria's predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling?

Good interrogators tend to be driven out, bad intel is produced, and abusive practices spread.

C. Torture inflicts a cost. This is true on several levels. In response to torture, some prisoners become more defiant, and some simply shut down. Those subjected to sensory deprivation or the distress of torture may lose their sense of reality: "torture tends to make the information provided less reliable." None of this can be easily undone, if at all. (It also completely undermines the trust-rapport approach attested to by Ali Soufan, Matthew Alexander and other professional interrogators.)

Meanwhile, torture apologists have argued that waterboarding causes no actual lasting harm. In actuality, it causes no visible, physical harm, and this is one of its primary appeals to torturers; WWII autopsies showed that waterboarding can damage internal organs. Additionally, there's no real doubt that torture can cause lasting psychological harm.

The more zealous torture supporters don't care about torture's cost to its victims, especially those who are clearly terrorists. But this ignores that many torture and abuse victims have been innocent (more below).

It further ignores that torture poisons the torturers as well. Returning to Bukovsky, he also describes his own torture (emphasis added):

In 1971, while in Lefortovo prison in Moscow (the central KGB interrogation jail), I went on a hunger strike demanding a defense lawyer of my choice (the KGB wanted its trusted lawyer to be assigned instead). The moment was most inconvenient for my captors because my case was due in court, and they had no time to spare. So, to break me down, they started force-feeding me in a very unusual manner -- through my nostrils. About a dozen guards led me from my cell to the medical unit. There they straitjacketed me, tied me to a bed, and sat on my legs so that I would not jerk. The others held my shoulders and my head while a doctor was pushing the feeding tube into my nostril.

The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man -- my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit. . . . Grrrr. There had just been time for everything to start healing during the night when they came back in the morning and did it all over again, for 10 days, when the guards could stand it no longer. As it happened, it was a Sunday and no bosses were around. They surrounded the doctor: "Hey, listen, let him drink it straight from the bowl, let him sip it. It'll be quicker for you, too, you silly old fool." The doctor was in tears: "Do you think I want to go to jail because of you lot? No, I can't do that. . . . " And so they stood over my body, cursing each other, with bloody bubbles coming out of my nose. On the 12th day, the authorities surrendered; they had run out of time. I had gotten my lawyer, but neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again.

Taxi to the Dark Side describes similar dynamics. (I wrote about them in more detail here.) Even if one believes (ludicrously) that all torture victims are guilty, those who are asked to commit torture tend to be scarred as well.

(Zero Dark Thirty does shows us American torturers who become scarred, but I'd argue that the presentation is that theirs is a noble personal sacrifice, both necessary and effective, not needless and counterproductive [not to mention illegal and contested]. Obviously there are conflicting viewpoints on this aspect of the film; more later.)

D. Innocents were held; prisoners were killed; innocents were tortured and killed. This is not in dispute; it's just that torture apologists tend to ignore it. Even if one holds that the U.S. tortured some evil men but that they deserved it, the fact remains that many innocents were tortured or killed as well. Moreover, this result is almost inevitable once one allows torture.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. imprisoned hundreds of men in roundups overseas. The U.S. was in panic mode, and gave out bounties without properly checking out allegations beforehand. Predictably, some informers accused people they didn't like to collect the cash. In 2008, McClatchy reported that a significant percentage of the men imprisoned by the U.S. were innocent, and furthermore, that the U.S. government knew this but still held onto them, in some cases for years. This is not a good way to win hearts and minds.

Some of the problem might have been a refusal to admit a mistake. That seems to have been the case with Dilawar Dilawar, the innocent man who was killed in U.S. custody and was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney. Maher Arar and Binyam Muhammed are both innocent men who the U.S. had tortured (sometimes the U.S. outsourced it). A 2006 study estimated that, up to that time, almost 100 prisoners were killed in U.S. custody. What are the odds that all of them were "guilty" men? What were they guilty of, specifically? Did they all deserve to die without a trial? Were all the men abused at Abu Ghraib guilty? It's common for torture apologists to present a moral cost-benefit argument for torture. All right; if we do this, what is the acceptable ratio of guilty men to innocent men abused, tortured or killed? What ratio is too high? If the conceit is that using torture represents a 'hard truth' we must face for the good America, what are the hard truths and cold, hard facts about how many people we as a nation have abused, tortured, and killed? Why is it that the same people defending or actually advocating for torture routinely avoid this subject? For that matter, what is the acceptable ratio of abused or dead foreigners to a single American life? Read enough pieces on torture, and you will find writers or commentators who are at least honest enough to admit that they really don't care about non-Americans, and that if the suffering is to be borne by others, no price is too high. But most Americans would find that troubling. (As I've written before, torture apologists will go on at length about ticking time bombs and Jack Bauer, but do not like to discuss Maher Arar. They prefer to discuss torture in theoretical terms, divorced from reality.)

E. Torture cost American lives. This relates directly to the previous point. Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym), an Air Force interrogator, pointed out in 2009:

There are valid reasons why we haven’t had enough with “torture sanctimony,” as Christopher Buckley puts it in an article in The Daily Beast, and let me start with the most important—it’s going to cost us future American lives in addition to the ones we’ve already lost.

Our policy of torture and abuse of prisoners has been Al Qaida’s number one recruiting tool, a point that Buckley does not mention and is also conspicuously absent from former CIA Director General Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s argument in the Wall Street Journal. As the senior interrogator in Iraq for a task force charged with hunting down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaida leader and mass murderer, I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight. Consider that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are these foreign fighters and you can easily conclude that we have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives because of our policy of torture and abuse. But that’s only the past...

Former officials who say that we prevented terrorist attacks by waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah are possibly intentionally ignorant of the fact that their actions cost us American lives. And let’s not forget the glaring failure in these cases. Torture never convinced either of these men to sell out Osama Bin Laden. . . .

This is not theoretical. Torture has cost American lives. Again, moral cost-benefit analysis: What is the acceptable ratio of attacks on American personnel to prisoners tortured? If torture and abuse are known not only to hurt American prestige and influence internationally, but to radicalize foreign populaces and lead to more attacks on American personnel, this is a known, predictable, negative consequence. Even if we assume that torture (and only torture) can produce accurate intelligence (it doesn't), what threshold of threat is great enough to warrant this negative result?

Alexander concludes by saying:

My extensive experience demonstrates that we can effectively interrogate without using torture and abuse. We do not have to choose between terror and torture. We are Americans and we are smarter and better than that.

F. Torture produced false confessions that cost time and other resources. Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11 features a lengthy and disturbing account of the treatment of Abu Zubdayah, a member of al Qaeda captured by the U.S. in March 2002. Suskind describes how Bush, Cheney, Rice and the gang heavily promoted Zubaydah as a criminal mastermind in public, the third-ranking member of al Qaeda and so on. The intelligence community assessment was far different:

"This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," [FBI agent Dan] Coleman told a top official at FBI after a few days reviewing the Zubaydah haul. "That's why they let him fly all over the world doing meet and greet. That's why people used his name on all sorts of calls and e-mails. He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights... He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable, you know, the greeter... Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace shaking hands."

This opinion was echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President. While Bush was out in public claiming Zubaydah's grandiose malevolence, his private disappointment fell, as it often would, on Tenet—the man whose job he'd saved.

"I said he was important," Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?"

"No sir, Mr. President."

Back in Langley, Tenet pressed subordinates over what could be done to get Zubaydah to talk. His injuries were serious, but he'd been moved from a hospital near Faisalabad to several locations in central Pakistan. The CIA found some of the finest medical professionals in America. CIA agents alighted at their medical offices and soon they were on flights to Pakistan.

"He received the finest medical attention on the planet," said one CIA official. "We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him." [p.100]

More on that:

Zubaydah's injuries—gunshots wounds to the leg, groin, and abdomen—had been successfully treated by the finest U.S. physicians in late April and early May. The doctors repaired internal bleeding, a fracture, and organ damage.

He was stabilized by mid-May and, thus, ready. An extraordinary moment in the "war on terror" was about to unfold. After months of interdepartmental exchanges over the detainment, interrogation, and prosecution of captives in the "war on terror"—as well as debates over which "debriefing" techniques would work most effectively on al Qaeda—the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered. [p.111]

Suskind describes a number of questionable alerts and investigations instigated based on Zubaydah's statements under torture. (I've cribbed from this post, which has more from his book.)

Suskind's account largely squares with that of Ali Soufan, a FBI interrogator who questioned Zubaydah before he was turned over to the CIA. Soufan wrote his op-ed "My Tortured Decision" in 2009 after the release of four Justice Department torture memos:

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

If these accounts are accurate, Zubaydah supplied useful intelligence before torture and false information afterward. It's also important to note that there was pushback against torture and abuse in the CIA and (more strenuously) in the FBI:

The debate after the release of these memos has centered on whether C.I.A. officials should be prosecuted for their role in harsh interrogation techniques. That would be a mistake. Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.

Fortunately for me, after I objected to the enhanced techniques, the message came through from Pat D’Amuro, an F.B.I. assistant director, that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out of the interrogations by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller (this was documented in the report released last year by the Justice Department’s inspector general).

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.)

Other accounts describe these schisms as well, and this raises a point can't be overemphasized: The decision to torture (and to do so repeatedly) was not driven by interrogation professionals, asking to have new powers because it was necessary for the good of the country. The story of the U.S. torture program is full of individuals in the U.S. military and intelligence agencies warning against such practices. That decision was driven from outside and above.

G. Torture produced false confessions that justified the Iraq War. This has been detailed in, among other places, a 2008 Senate report, Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody. McClatchy gives a good overview (and links the report):

The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime.

The use of abusive interrogation—widely considered torture—as part of Bush’s quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them. . . .

"There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder," [a former senior intelligence official] continued.

"Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA… and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies."

Senior administration officials, however, "blew that off and kept insisting that we'd overlooked something, that the interrogators weren't pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information," he said.

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators in 2006 that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility were under "pressure" to produce evidence of ties between al Qaida and Iraq.

"While we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaida and Iraq and we were not successful in establishing a link between al Qaida and Iraq," Burney told staff of the Army Inspector General. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."

Excerpts from Burney's interview appeared in a full, declassified report on a two-year investigation into detainee abuse released on Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called Burney's statement "very significant."

"I think it's obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link (between al Qaida and Iraq)," Levin said in a conference call with reporters. "They made out links where they didn't exist."

Interrogations of some prisoners were relentless. Marcy Wheeler was the first to observe, "according to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 and Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002." If torture works so well, why did it need to be performed so many times? If modern torturers are more skilled than the deluded interrogators of the Inquisition absolutely certain of the truth, why did it take them so long to obtain confessions? (And if they were certain of the truth to begin with, why bother with the confessions in the first place?) John Cole commented, "There better be a pretty damned long fuse on that ticking time bomb. And yes, this is nothing but pure sadism."

Perhaps it was sadism in part, but the other obvious conclusion is that the prisoners were not saying what their torturers wanted to hear. Another important figure was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Dan Froomkin summarized in 2009:

We learned four years ago that a confession extracted under torture by Egyptian authorities from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured terror suspect who had been rendered to Egypt by the CIA, was the sole source for arguments Bush made in a key pre-Iraq war speech in October 2002. "We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases," Bush said, uttering torture-inspired fiction. The same statements also provided a critical part of then-secretary of state Colin Powell's famous presentation to the United Nations, a month before the invasion.

The report also makes it clear that the decision to adopt techniques nearly universally acknowledged to be torture was made much earlier -- and in a much more calculated manner -- than the Bush administration led the public to believe.

The Armed Services Committee actually released the executive summary of this report last December. It concluded that the Bush administration's consistent blaming of the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere on "a few bad apples" was in fact a pack of lies. (See my December 12 column, Pack of Liars.) Instead, the committee found: "The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

The report pointed an accusing finger specifically at Bush, for opening the door with his Feb. 7, 2002, memo exempting war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions.

And it documented how the Bush torture techniques were reverse-engineered from a training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, intended to help soldiers resist the kinds of brutal interrogations used by the Chinese during the Korean War.

Marcy Wheeler provides more detail from another Senate report (Postwar Findings about Iraq's WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How They Compare with Prewar Assessments, 2006):

According to al-Libi, the foreign government service [redacted] “stated that the next topic was al-Qa’ida’s connections with Iraq. … This was a subject about which he said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story.” Al-Libi indicated that his interrogators did not like his responses and then “placed him in a small box approximately 50cm x 50cm.” He claimed he was held in the box for approximately 17 hours. When he was let out of the box, alLibi claims that he was given a last opportunity to “tell the truth.” When al-Libi did not satisfy the interrogator, al-Libi claimed that “he was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and he fell on his back.” Al-Libi told CIA debriefers that he then “was punched for 15 minutes.” [p. 216]

Al-Libi told debriefers that “after the beating,” he was again asked about the connection with Iraq and this time he came up with a story that three al-Qa’ida members went to Iraq to learn about nuclear weapons. Al-Libi said that he used the names of real individuals associated with al-Qa’ida so that he could remember the details of his fabricated story and make it more believable to the foreign intelligence service. Al-Libi noted that “this pleased his [foreign] interrogators, who directed that al-Libi be taken back to a big room, vice the 50 square centimeter box and given food.” [p. 217]

These bombshells received some press coverage, but scant national discussion (especially relative to their importance). I don't think any torture apologists have addressed them substantially – perhaps they've attacked the messenger, but they haven't address the actual findings. Back to moral cost-benefit analysis: Is torture worth it when it results in an unnecessary war? When it results in (to date) over 4,400 American lives lost and Iraqi lives lost estimated in the hundreds of thousands? (Well, perhaps it's worth it if you want to start that war.) But consider these costs, and add these totals to the prisoner deaths and deaths pointed out by Matthew Alexander, deaths due to attacks fueled by rage over Abu Ghraib. The supposed benefits of torture seem tenuous at best.

Paul Krugman commented on these torture revelations back in 2009:

Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.

There’s a word for this: it’s evil.

Too harsh? I don't think so. But let's note a crucial point. We don't need to agree on motive to acknowledge what actually happened. Perhaps, as has been the case for torturers throughout the millennia, members of the Bush administration sincerely believed they knew the truth with certainty, and did not realize that they were forcing false confessions. (This doesn't account for the many warnings they ignored, but put that aside for a moment.) A common torture defense has been to claim that concerns about torture are politically motivated, witch hunts, and that the people ordering torture (not just those lower down conducting it) were full of noble intentions. Even if one believes all that, it's important to note the facts and do some soul-searching: U.S. officials justified going to war based on false confessions obtained through torture. How do we feel about that as a nation? What are we going to do to prevent it ever occurring again in the future? Some people have suggested no criminal prosecutions but at least a Truth and Reconciliation project (and at this point, that's probably all we can get).

An additional point, especially relevant given that Zero Dark Thirty depicts the hunt for and killing of bin Laden. Ted Koppel recently argued in print and on TV that al Qaeda has been at least partially successful:

Terrorism, after all, is designed to produce overreaction. It is the means by which the weak induce the powerful to inflict damage upon themselves—and al Qaeda and groups like it are surely counting on that as the centerpiece of their strategy.

Matt Yglesias made a similar point back in 2008:

Few people seem to appreciate it, but it's quite literally true that al-Qaeda's strategy is to cripple the U.S. economy by dragging us into quagmires abroad. Osama bin Laden himself has said this, and it's the only strategy that makes sense. A smallish number of people with no base of resources can't possibly defeat us unless we shoot ourselves in the foot repeatedly as Bush and McCain propose.

Most Americans view the killing of bin Laden as a victory. But it's still worth looking back on the past 13-some years of war and torture and considering, perhaps the better route is not trying to appear tough but in actually being smart.

H. Torture evidence was destroyed. In violation of a court order, the CIA destroyed at least 92 videotapes showing torture. (These tapes were earlier denied to the 9/11 Commission.) Back in 2009, Scott Horton summarized the situation well:

The CIA purposefully destroyed nearly 100 tapes of interrogation sessions involving prisoners in its custody. . . .

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a man who has spoken openly of his own personal fear of criminal investigation and prosecution emerging from his stewardship of intelligence-gathering operations, defended the previously disclosed destruction by asserting that it had been done in accordance with law.

But in what legal system is it proper for the target of an investigation to destroy evidence of crimes? Torture is a criminal act, and the tapes most likely captured evidence of crimes. This evidence would also have been critical for purposes of assessing the reliability of confessions or other information secured from persons who were tortured. The evidence was sought in the New York FOIA litigation and in other court cases, and it would have been essential for any prosecution of the persons covered. But more importantly, it would serve as essential evidence in the forthcoming prosecutions of the Bush Administration torture conspirators.

A Department of Justice investigation is now underway into CIA destruction of evidence. But at this point we have every reason to suspect Justice Department complicity in the schemes, especially given reports that approval for the destruction was sought through legal channels. The Justice Department made false representations to at least one court on this subject already (as the AP report noted), and given the obsession with secrecy that has crept into the new administration, it’s very difficult to credit statements coming out of the Justice Department on the subject. . . .

There is one inescapable conclusion to draw from the destruction of evidence here: those who destroyed it fully appreciated it could be offered up as evidence of crimes in which they were implicated in a future prosecution.

Alas, there were no real consequences for this destruction of evidence. You will see arguments that torture provided essential intelligence. If so, the taped sessions might have looked bad, but would have proved such claims (as Horton points out). Furthermore, sources in the CIA and elsewhere facing criminal liability have had a glaring motivation to insist that torture "worked" and/or was necessary. They may even believe it. But there's strong reason to treat these claims with extreme skepticism. Sources such as FBI interrogator Ali Soufan has said that he doesn't really object to torture on moral grounds; he objects to it because it doesn't work. The history of torture supports his position. But also, why would he lie? Torture opponents (at least some of them) have no reason to lie about its inefficacy. In contrast, torture proponents and apologists (many of them) have strong reasons to lie (or to honestly believe falsehoods, or not to look too deeply into the evidence – and this is a consistent feature of their op-eds). It would do well to consider this.

The issue of the video tapes brings up back to Zero Dark Thirty. The CIA's internal discussion of correspondence with Boal includes this passage:

As a cinematic device of portraying the research that went into pulling nuggets of detainee reporting Boal has a scene where Maya conducts research through reviewing film of detainee interviews. She analyzes multiple videos simultaneously looking for clues. We made the point--which has been discussed in open sources--detainee sessions were not videotaped and used for research and analysis. Boal said he understood but visually this is the only way to show research in an interesting cinematic way. We understood but reiterated this. We did not request Boal take this scene out of the movie.

Boal was absolutely right in terms of visual dramatization, but notice that the CIA lied to him, because interrogation sessions were videotaped and later destroyed. (If instead this was hair-splitting about what constituted "detainee interviews," the CIA's objection was still at best intentionally misleading.)

This raises the question: Did Boal know the CIA was lying to him? If Boal didn't know that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of interrogations, as was publicly reported, it doesn't speak well of his knowledge of the U.S. intelligence and torture programs. If he didn't know, it would further explain his lack of necessary skepticism toward CIA accounts, given their heavy self-interest in spinning a particular tale. Alternatively, what if Boal did know? That would necessitate him rejecting conflicting accounts, and relying on a CIA public relations version of what happened despite knowing that he had been lied to – something like, "Yeah, I know they're bullshitting me on this point, but I still find their overall account more credible than the others I've heard." (My guess is that Boal didn't know, but I'd argue that either situation means that he behaved irresponsibly.)

I. Torture defenses are frequently disingenuous, and many torture apologists are not disinterested parties (they or their colleagues face criminal liability). This builds on the previous section, but basically, make sure your bullshit detector is working. Know your context: Remember that torture was and is illegal, and that the overwhelming lesson of the historical record is that is does not work for obtaining accurate intelligence. Remember that, while people were genuinely panicked after 9/11, the drafting of torture memos took place over the course of months and years, and despite numerous warnings; consequently, there were plenty of opportunities for wiser judgment to prevail. As I've written before, torture apologia often follows a pattern of descending denials: We did not torture; waterboarding is not torture; even if is torture, it was legal; even it was illegal, it was necessary; even if it wasn't necessary, it was not our fault.

This is not a matter of questioning anyone's patriotism – it's a matter of questioning their judgment. One of the classic methods of derailing a discussion on torture is to conflate the two, and act shocked, shocked that anyone could dare question these noble Americans who toiled in service of their country. It's why it's important to focus on what actually happened and not solely argue about motives.

Similarly, it's wise to look out for this common move: Conflating We obtained useful information from this prisoner, which is very plausible, with some version of We obtained critical information from this prisoner, we obtained it through torture (although we'll call that "enhanced interrogation techniques"), and could only have obtained it through torture. Thus, for instance, the "torture worked" crowd will point to the intelligence Ali Soufan successfully obtained pre-torture and claim it as proof that torture worked. Similarly, the bar can be lowered, and suddenly "useful" intelligence is presented as sufficient justification for torture, not the threat of a ticking time bomb that's usually fearfully invoked. Or if any prisoner who was tortured or abused uttered any useful information that lead to tracking down bin Laden, then suddenly torture "worked," regardless of any other costs. None of this magically excuses torture or makes it wise or legal. None of it means that public disclosure of what happened should be blocked or that there should be no accountability. The notion that torture is a sin without costs apart from moral qualms is a dangerous lie. (Watch for these moves and other common defenses. For more, see "Here’s How the CIA Can Fudge the Question of Whether Torture ‘Worked,’" "CIA Documents Provide Little Cover for Cheney Claims," "Big Surprise: Torture Memos Belie Cheney’s Claims," "Levin: Memos don't show what Cheney says they do.")

In the most generous calculation to the pro-torture crowd, torture carries with it tremendous known costs in return for possible benefits. And this is only if one ignores the moral and legal questions, which I would argue one should not do. (Regardless, I would once again urge anyone inclined to support torture to look more deeply into the subject.)

Summing up: I realize this section may be overkill, and one of the many reasons I've delayed finishing this post for long (besides real life intruding) is that I feel I'm repeating myself (and sometimes literally am). The subject matter can be emotionally draining, too, all the more so because it feels like shouting on deaf ears – so many journalists just don't want to cover this stuff. Bombshell revelations that certainly qualify as newsworthy have been flat-out ignored, repeatedly. I think it's because it's all so shameful. You can't really have a warm, fuzzy feeling about your country when it comes to this material. But as an American, I feel it’s important that we as a country do look at this stuff. We can and must do better. The country that held the Nazis to account at Nuremberg should not throw away the rule of law just because some people want to play tough guy or shit their pants. (Godwin. Also, Mannion.) Transparency and accountability are important. As E.J. Dionne once wrote for Independence Day, "the true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction." That is the honorable course.

Bringing this back to Zero Dark Thirty, I certainly didn't expect it or any narrative film to cover all of the material mentioned above. (That would be grossly unfair; plus, books and documentaries are better suited for it.) However, with artists of merit, I expect research and reflection to inform their work. Similarly, I don't want or expect a preachy or artless film (bugger that); Zero Dark Thirty cannot be fairly accused of being artless or without nuance, but I do hold that it makes unforced artistic errors. I don't expect it or any work to reflect my exact perspective by any means, but I do want to be able to respect its point of view and the work that went into the work of art. I'd suggest that the film as it exists reveals that Boal and Bigelow simply didn't know most of this material. I find it maddening as a viewer, but they didn't know crucial background. Alternatively or additionally, they just didn't want to tackle it. If you want drama, it's hard to see why you would exclude all the real-life scenes of FBI, CIA and military personnel arguing against torture and abuse. It's difficult to see why you wouldn't show that, in the hunt for Bin Laden, the legal approaches worked and the illegal ones were counterproductive. (Some defenders of the film argue that it does just that.) The problem is, if you highlight that, it's almost impossible not to address the obvious question: Who ordered this? If Dan (Jason Clarke) is proceeding to torture a prisoner under orders versus out of personal frustration (or even claimed expertise), and in opposition to vocal colleagues, it radically changes the dynamics. The presentation hinges on artistic choices, which are all the more significant in a work like this when the filmmakers decide not to be true-to-life. As with The Hurt Locker, Boal and Bigelow wanted a "boots on the ground" viewpoint and to avoid "politics," and I sincerely respect that artistic impulse. The problem is, with this subject matter, that approach and honesty are sadly incompatible. Rather than facing that and wrestling with it, Boal and Bigelow dodged it, completely excising a major point-of-view and choosing to exclude vital context from the viewer. Excising the Bush administration's orders to torture and the internal pushback against torture, and then presenting Obama's objection to torture as prissy, is hardly a neutral perspective (even if that was somehow the intent). It winds up being a pretty "partisan" position for filmmakers who claim they wanted to avoid partisan politics (leaving aside that opposing torture didn't used to be, and shouldn't be, a partisan issue). It is precisely the sort "whitewashing" they claim they wanted to avoid. Relatedly, ambiguity is often to be found in good art, but the "ambiguity" about torture's efficacy, whether in the hunt for Bin Laden or the overall historical record, is a political (or in this artistic) construction not supported by the facts. It is an artistic choice, not a true account, warts-and-all. It gives the illusion of being open-minded, but it’s actually gutless and ass-covering. Boal and Bigelow are willing to show, at length, that America tortured, but during all that time, they are not willing to ask why it occurred beyond a shallow level (a level of personal frustration, in part). They essentially buy – and sell – the TV show 24's view of torture as a necessary evil perpetrated by noble Americans for the greater good. (Substitute "excusable mistake" for "necessary evil" if you prefer.) While the intentions of Boal and Bigelow might have been good, I think they didn't do their due diligence and enough research, and compounded this with some regrettable artistic decisions that make for an unfortunately problematic film.

The Real Maya

While the character Maya may incorporate aspects of other agents, she seems to be mainly based on one woman who has been mentioned several times in public accounts of America's counterterrorism, rendition and torture programs. (I'll just refer to her as "the real Maya.") She's described as a "hard-driving, redheaded former Soviet analyst" by Jane Mayer in The Dark Side [p. 273]. Here's her first mention, in a passage about "Alec Station" (the Bin Laden unit):

[Michael] Scheuer was a noticeably rumpled-looking, middle-aged man of intense views, a style that meshed strangely with his instance upon addressing all of the men he worked with formally as "sir." A devout Catholic, he had been trained by Jesuits and saw the terrorist threat in apocalyptic terms. He staffed Alec Station with an unusually large proportion of women, many of whom were originally Soviet analysts, who brought an intense Cold War sense of global peril to the mission. A tall, pale-skinned, spiky-haired redhead who wore bright red lipstick was particularly controversial among many of her male colleagues for her ferociousness. In a predominantly male culture where macho derring-do was cherished at least in theory, these women, some of whom called themselves "The Power Women's Club," vacationing and spending social time together, were discounted by many male peers who sniped at them as man-hating fanatics. Collectively they became known as "The Manson family."

[p. 35]

This early portrait is somewhat sympathetic. Yes, the real Maya may be 'ferocious,' but this might be pushback against a sexist, macho culture. She features much more heavily in Chapter 11, "Blowback," in The Dark Side (a book you should buy and read in its entirety if you haven’t).

According to his own account, the CIA kept [Khalid Sheik] Mohammed naked for more than a month, during which time he said he was questioned by an usual number of female handlers, perhaps as an additional humiliation. Despite the CIA's insistence on the professionalism of its interrogation program, according to two well-informed Agency sources, one particularly overzealous female officer had to be reprimanded for her role. After Mohammed was captured, the woman, who headed the Al Qaeda unit in the CTC, was so excited she flew at government expense to the black site where Mohammed was held so that’s he could personally watch him being waterboarded. The CIA declined to discuss the matter, to make the officer available for comment, or to allow her to be named, because of a sensitive assignment she was subsequently given. Coworkers described her, however, as the same redheaded former Soviet analyst who had been in the Bin Laden Unit during Michael Scheuer's supervision, who was reviled by some male colleagues for what they regarded as her aggression. Coworkers said she had no legitimate reason to be present during Mohammed's interrogation. She was not an interrogator. "She thought it would be cool to be in the room," a former colleague said. But ironically, her presence during Mohammed's ordeal, sources said, seemed to anger and strengthen his resolve, helping him to hold out longer against the harsh tactics used against him. Afterward, two sources said, word leaked out about her jaunt and superiors at the CIA scolded her for treating the painful interrogation as a show. "She got in some trouble. They told her, 'It's not supposed to be entertainment,'" the former colleague disclosed.

[p. 273]

The picture is of someone who gets off on torture and power dynamics, and whose zeal is counterproductive for obtaining accurate intelligence. This would in marked contrast to the fictional Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, who is deeply upset and even tears up after witnessing a grueling torture session. Is Mayer's account accurate? It's possible that colleagues who didn't like the real Maya have exaggerated her demeanor somewhat. However, that still wouldn't explain away her choice to fly to be in the room while Mohammed was tortured (and the subsequent reprimand).

It bears mentioning that the accuracy of Khalid Sheik Mohammed's statements resulting from torture has been consistently questioned. Here's a bit of Mayer's account:

After Mohammed had been interrogated for some time, a top Agency official asked for a few choice revelations from his confession that he could share with officers from an allied foreign intelligence agency. To his surprise, he was told by top CIA officials that there really was nothing "solid" enough to pass on. Although few outside of the CIA knew it, Mohammed had recanted substantial portions of his initial confession.

Mohammed brazenly boasted later about his ability to mislead the United States. He claimed that the false information he fabricated caused the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to issue urgent terrorist threat alerts on several occasions, for no real reason. He just wanted the interrogators to stop, he said, so he told them whatever they seemed to want to hear.

The reliability of Mohammed's coerced confession was a particularly painful problem in the Daniel Pearl case. In the fall of 2003, Condoleezza Rice called Pearl's young widow, Mariane, with the confidential news that Mohammed had confessed to personally killing her husband. But many of the federal officials who knew the most about Mohammed were deeply skeptical…

[p. 277]

(See the link above for more.) Meanwhile, the real Maya was the central, driving figure in the kidnapping and abuse of an innocent German citizen, Khalid El-Masri:

Back in Langley, the head of the Al Qaeda Unit, the same hard-driving woman who had been scolded for her voyeuristic strip to watch the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, agitated for the CIA to take custody of Masri. She had no proof, but she argued that he was probably a terrorist. Having been in the Bin Laden Unit that failed to connect the dots before September 11, she was doubly determined to let no terrorist slip through the cracks again. She wanted Masri rendered to one of the CIA's black site prisons in Afghanistan for interrogation. Doubters in the Agency suggested they should wait for German officials to establish first whether his passport was in fact a forgery. They pointed out that there was no evidence he was anything more than a tourist. But the Al Qaeda Unit's chief was skeptical about the Germans' trustworthiness because she regarded them all as soft on terrorism, according to a colleague. Complicating matters further, most of the government officials there were off on Christmas break. By the time the Berlin station looked at any of the paperwork, Masri was already on his way to Afghanistan. . . .

Almost from the start, the rendition team had a strange feeling about Masri. He wasn't acting like a terrorist. By the time their flight reached Afghanistan, the head of rendition team sent word to the CIA station chief in Kabul that he thought something wasn't right. The Kabul station chief was incensed and sent a cable to the CTC accusing Langley of having sent him an innocent person. But the CTC officials sent back word that the head of the Al Qaeda Unit wanted Masri held and interrogated. She thought he seemed dangerous.

[pp. 282–283]

The story continues:

As Masri wasted away, being fed rotten chicken bones and suffering from chronic diarrhea, the chief of the station in Kabul was saying, "I want this guy out"—but in Washington, the head of the Al Qaeda Unit kept insisting she had a "gut feeling he's bad. She can't admit a mistake," a former colleague said. The "Techs," meanwhile, in Germany had after several weeks thoroughly analyzed Masri's passport. They called the CTC with bad news: There was nothing wrong with it. It was legitimate.

The head of the Al Qaeda Unit still wanted Masri held. "She just looked in her crystal ball and it said that he was bad," said another former colleague at the CIA in disgust. "If you're going to unleash the beast," he said of the CIA's terrible powers, "you better be damn sure of your target."

After this had gone on for several months, some of those in the Agency who knew that Masri's passport was legitimate started to lobby for his release. One CIA official said he came in every morning and asked, "Is that guy still locked up in the Salt Pit?"

But the Al Qaeda Unit leader was still saying she had suspicions about him. She argued, a source said, that Masri "had phone calls to people who were bad. Or to people who knew people who were bad."

"But is he a terrorist?" the others would ask. If not, they argued, the CIA had to let him out of the Afghan prison. "It wasn't exactly the Hilton," one noted.

By late March, the Al Qaeda Unit chief agreed to release him, but only if the German intelligence services would promise to follow him once he was free. "They were still claiming he was bad," a CIA source recalled. She was told that if Masri wasn't a terrorist, they couldn't put him on a watch list. He was a German citizen. There were no charges against him. They couldn't just tap his phone for no reason and follow him around. The Al Qaeda Unit head again was reluctant to let him out.

Meanwhile, Masri—who had already lost sixty pounds—had gone on a hunger strike and was in such dire shape he was being force-fed through a tube stuck down his nose.

[pp. 284–285]

It's astounding that they wouldn't verify the passport before giving Masri the rendition treatment. It's even more troubling that they wouldn't let him go after determining that it was genuine. Some people wanted to, but the real Maya fought against this. This is the portrait of someone who decides things based on gut decisions versus solid detective work and will not admit a mistake. Was this zeal? Confirmation bias? Denial? A desire to cover her ass, even if it meant an innocent man continued to be imprisoned and suffered?

Eventually, two officers in the European Division drew up a plan to release Masri in what they called a "reverse rendition." The idea was to drive him around in circles for a few hours and then let him go. But the Al Qaeda Unit chief was still arguing that he was a terrorist. She had an usual amount of clout in the Agency. She was smart and tough. And her trump card was that she sometimes personally briefed President Bush.

Finally, the dispute over Masri reached Tenet. A meeting took place to resolve it. [José] Rodriguez, [James] Pavitt, the European Division officials, and the Bin Laden Unit head were all there. After each made their arguments, Tenet looked stunned. "Are you telling me we've got an innocent guy stuck in a prison in Afghanistan? Oh shit! Just tell me—please—we haven't used 'enhanced' interrogation techniques on him, have we?"

[pp. 285–286]

This sounds like a case of personality and ego riding roughshod over sound judgment and good procedure. Nor is this some tiny mistake. This created an international incident with Germany (and probably a ripple effect with other allies), and that's not to mention the human cost:

Asked if the treatment he got was torture of, as American officials have said, something less, Masri repeated the word. "Torture? I'm not sure what torture is. I'm not a lawyer. But it is my belief that I was tortured. Whoever says that's not torture should just have it done to them. They should feel it in their own mind and body. The whole time, I was in fear for my life. I was deadly afraid of what would happen next."

[p. 287]

As for lessons learned, well:

A former Top Agency official declined to discuss the details of the Masri case, but he said in defense of the aggressive head of the Al Qaeda Unit, whose hunch had driven the mistaken rendition, "General Patton wasn't popular either, but sometime it takes a tough person to win a war."

[p. 287]

He defended his colleague, and that's not surprising. But it's a dodge (or missing the point), since being "tough" (especially one's idea of being tough) is hardly the same as being "effective." The point is to gather accurate intelligence, not to establish one's tough guy/gal cred.

Dana Priest covered the same story in a 2005 Washington Post article, "Wrongful Imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA Mistake." Harper's covered it briefly, and Masri also appeared on 60 Minutes.

The real Maya has cropped up in some other stories, notably another Washington Post article from December 2012, "In ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ she’s the hero; in real life, CIA agent’s career is more complicated":

The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history.

She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an e-mail to dozens of other recipients saying they didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said.

The woman has also come under scrutiny for her contacts with filmmakers and others about the bin Laden mission, part of a broader internal inquiry into the agency’s cooperation on the new movie and other projects, former officials said.

Her defenders say the operative has been treated unfairly, and even her critics acknowledge that her contributions to the bin Laden hunt were crucial. But the developments have cast a cloud over a career that is about to be bathed in the sort of cinematic glow ordinarily reserved for fictional Hollywood spies.

The female officer, who is in her 30s, is the model for the main character in “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film that chronicles the decade-long hunt for the al-Qaeda chief and that critics are describing as an Academy Award front-runner even before its Dec. 19 release.

The character Maya, which is not the CIA operative’s real name, is portrayed as a gifted operative who spent years pursuing her conviction that al-Qaeda’s courier network would lead to bin Laden, a conviction that proved correct.

At one point in the film, after a female colleague is killed in an attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan, Maya describes her purpose in near-messianic terms: “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”

Colleagues said the on-screen depiction captures the woman’s dedication and combative temperament.

“She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama bin Laden,” said a former CIA associate, who added that the attention from filmmakers sent waves of envy through the agency’s ranks.

This echoes the source in Mayer's account (and it may be the same person). Apparently, the real Maya is rash, but also has her defenders:

This spring, she was among a handful of employees given the agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, its highest honor except for those recognizing people who have come under direct fire. But when dozens of others were given lesser awards, the female officer lashed out.

“She hit ‘reply all’ ” to an e-mail announcement of the awards, a second former CIA official said. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.”

Over the past year, she was denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.

Officials said the woman was given a cash bonus for her work on the bin Laden mission and has since moved on to a new counterterrorism assignment. They declined to say why the promotion was blocked.

The move stunned the woman’s former associates, despite her reputation for clashing with colleagues.

“Do you know how many CIA officers are jerks?” the former official said. “If that was a disqualifier, the whole National Clandestine Service would be gone.”

There's a further account that the real Maya refused to share information with the FBI prior to 9/11 about two of the eventual hijackers, lied to the FBI as well, and then lied about all this to congressional investigators. Some of this is familiar if maddening turf war stuff, but also seems to be another instance of ego trumping professionalism and effective intelligence procedures.

What's your reaction to these stories? Unfortunately, some Americans honestly don't give a shit about non-Americans, and so their torture and abuse isn't a big deal, if there's even a sliver of a chance that it might "protect" them. I'd argue that torture and abuse, and subverting due process, is not only immoral and illegal, it's extremely counterproductive.

I'd also suggest that the portrait of the real Maya in The Dark Side and other accounts is one of dedication (and probably fierce patriotism), and apparently some valuable work – but also domineering, blinding ego and occasionally colossal bad judgement. Don't believe all of it? Fine. At the very least, it gives ample reason to approach any account from the real Maya with skepticism and to check it against other sources. That skepticism should become even stronger if, in a conversation with a reporter, she's not forthcoming about this and similar incidents. (I have no idea how candid she was, but the WaPo story certainly suggests she was indeed a source for Boal.) The real Maya is far from a disinterested party. She may be in legal jeopardy for some of her actions (or at least may be hurt professionally for them) and has every reason to claim they were justified and successful. She has every reason to take credit where possible. She definitely was involved in the hunt for bin Laden, but she also claims primary (if not sole) credit for locating him, and this is more questionable. Perception is one thing; perhaps she wasn't or isn't as gung-ho for torture as she's been depicted in journalistic accounts. That doesn't account for the time line of events, though, and facts that are not in dispute, such as ordering extraordinary rendition for a man and refusing to let him go for months after evidence showed him to be innocent. She may honestly believe everything she says and may affirm Zero Dark Thirty as a true-to-life account. There's a saying that we're all the heroes or heroines in the movies running in our heads. The Maya shown in Zero Dark Thirty is not only clearly the star of the movie, but presented as a heroine – flawed, but admirable. She's headstrong and impolitic, sure, but in the movie, her judgment is consistently depicted as correct, and the chief problem is that she's not being heeded. In a sense, Zero Dark Thirty presents us the movie running in the real Maya's head, along with some warts, but there are strong reasons to question its accuracy – and more importantly, to consider the context it chooses to omit.

It bears mentioning that no institution is monolithic, and that includes the CIA. Ron Suskind and Jane Mayer both had CIA sources for their books, and some people in the CIA clearly opposed torture. Still others might have resisted but went along with orders. And still others might have agreed with the torture approach (the CIA has an unfortunate history with it). Regardless, at least when it comes to the CIA public relations department, there has largely been a circling of the wagons and covering of the asses. Some CIA sources have pointed out the orders the agency received from the Bush administration, but the official line (from what I've seen, anyway) has been primarily about avoiding legal jeopardy – that any abuses the CIA committed were legal and/or effective. This is unfortunate, because such whitewashing detracts from the legitimate, valuable work the CIA has done in the past 13 years. (A similar whitewashing occurred at the Department of Justice on related and unrelated issues.)

As covered earlier, Boal described parts of his screenplay to the CIA and changed parts of the script based on their feedback. Although the CIA don't come off smelling like roses in the film, a more unflinching and accurate account would have made them look far worse. Once again, the issue is not questioning anyone's patriotism; it's questioning their judgment.

I'm guessing, in Mark Boal's cursory research for Zero Dark Thirty, he never read Jane Mayer's work (certainly not in any depth) and never came across the El-Masri story. I'm guessing he also never read Ali Soufan's work or any of the dozen-some major accounts of the U.S. torture program that were in the public record well before he started to write his screenplay. (The worse possibility is that he did read some of it and dismissed it outright. Regardless, the completed screenplay and film show little to no awareness of this material's existence.) I am not saying that Thirty Dark Thirty should have had an El-Masri section, nor am I saying that the movie should have been made the way I would have made it. But I believe a more full picture of the real Maya by the filmmakers would have produced a different movie. I'm saying that the film that was made shows insufficient skepticism and a lack of awareness of contrary accounts, and this betrays a failure of due diligence on the journalistic front and poor judgment on the artistic one. Moreover, I view this as unfortunate, unnecessary, and a fair and vitally important point of criticism. I believe Boal and Bigelow were seduced by their source (as Gibney and others put it) and fell in love with a story they wanted to tell versus a much uglier, more complex, and more accurate story. To reiterate, I think they settled on making a film about a plucky heroine who fights her bosses to bring a terrorist to justice at great personal cost (and again, there's a grain of truth there), but that precluded other approaches and many inconvenient, glaring facts. They try to keep a boots-on-the-ground perspective, in part to try to keep "politics" out of their film, but this removes crucial context, especially about who ordered torture, who opposed it, and torture's ineffectiveness. The working title of the film was For God and Country. I suspect that was meant to be somewhat ambiguous, to be taken either earnestly or ironically (or both). Perhaps it also helped secure cooperation from sources wary of a critical viewpoint. Boal and Bigelow resent being called pro-torture, but I suspect they were also scared of having their patriotism attacked. And while I'd say they certainly don't have a rosy view of war, they can't be called anti-imperialists, either. I don't think they're truly pro-torture, either (more on this later), but they do depict torture's effectiveness much more ambiguously than the historical record supports, likely out of a misguided notion that this is "even-handed" despite its inaccuracy. Bigelow and Boal aren't advocating an earnest, unironic "America, Fuck Yeah" worldview, but they want to view, and depict, U.S. personnel as heroes – flawed heroes, but heroes nonetheless.

(Actually, when I saw the second trailer for Zero Dark Thirty, and after the exchange "What convinced you?" "Her confidence" it cut to Chastain in shades looking badass, I thought, Oh shit, is she playing that redheaded CIA agent in The Dark Side? If so, that's really bad news… because she was pro-torture, and probably spun a tale for the filmmakers.)

24 and the Depiction of Torture in Film and TV

Art is capable of saying more than one thing at once, and should not be viewed only as propaganda, especially if it wasn't intended as such. (It can also be crap art.) It is fair to discuss whether propagandistic elements exist nonetheless or whether others are using the film in that way. Meanwhile, if a "docudrama" purports to show real events, authenticity is a valid measure. No one goes to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter expecting a faithful historical account, but their expectations are different for a serious, prestige film such as Lincoln. This is especially the case if the serious, prestige film is actively touted as being a "reported film" versus a standard movie and "Based on first-hand accounts of actual events."

Zero Dark Thirty was not created in a vacuum, and it might help to consider the popular and controversial TV show 24 as a baseline for comparison. As Jane Mayer reported in 2007 in "Whatever It Takes: The Politics of the Man Behind 24":

This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind “24.” Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan—wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals—aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his “call” was.

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”

The meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, had been arranged by David Danzig, the Human Rights First official. Several top producers of “24” were present, but Surnow was conspicuously absent. Surnow explained to me, “I just can’t sit in a room that long. I’m too A.D.D.—I can’t sit still.” He told the group that the meeting conflicted with a planned conference call with Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News Channel. (Another participant in the conference call attended the meeting.) Ailes wanted to discuss a project that Surnow has been planning for months: the début, on February 18th, of “The Half Hour News Hour,” a conservative satirical treatment of the week’s news; Surnow sees the show as offering a counterpoint to the liberal slant of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Before the meeting, Stuart Herrington, one of the three veteran interrogators, had prepared a list of seventeen effective techniques, none of which were abusive. He and the others described various tactics, such as giving suspects a postcard to send home, thereby learning the name and address of their next of kin. After Howard Gordon, the lead writer, listened to some of Herrington’s suggestions, he slammed his fist on the table and joked, “You’re hired!” He also excitedly asked the West Point delegation if they knew of any effective truth serums.

At other moments, the discussion was more strained. Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

The “24” producers told the military and law-enforcement experts that they were careful not to glamorize torture; they noted that Bauer never enjoys inflicting pain, and that it had clearly exacted a psychological toll on the character. (As Gordon put it to me, "Jack is basically damned.") Finnegan and the others disagreed, pointing out that Bauer remains coolly rational after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state’s witness with a hacksaw. Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I.’s top experts in questioning techniques, attended the meeting; he told me, "Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems."

Cochran, who has a law degree, listened politely to the delegation’s complaints. He told me that he supports the use of torture “in narrow circumstances” and believes that it can be justified under the Constitution. “The Doctrine of Necessity says you can occasionally break the law to prevent greater harm,” he said. “I think that could supersede the Convention Against Torture.” (Few legal scholars agree with this argument.) At the meeting, Cochran demanded to know what the interrogators would do if they faced the imminent threat of a nuclear blast in New York City, and had custody of a suspect who knew how to stop it. One interrogator said that he would apply physical coercion only if he received a personal directive from the President. But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that torture was not an effective response. “These are very determined people, and they won’t turn just because you pull a fingernail out,” he told me. And Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. “They almost welcome torture,” he said. “They expect it. They want to be martyred.” A ticking time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect only more unwilling to talk. “They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory—the ticking time bomb will go off!”

The notion that physical coercion in interrogations is unreliable, although widespread among military intelligence officers and F.B.I. agents, has been firmly rejected by the Bush Administration. Last September, President Bush defended the C.I.A.’s use of “an alternative set of procedures.” In order to “save innocent lives,” he said, the agency needed to be able to use “enhanced” measures to extract “vital information” from “dangerous” detainees who were aware of “terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else.”

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have angered much of the world, the response of Americans has been more tepid. Finnegan attributes the fact that “we are generally more comfortable and more accepting of this,” in part, to the popularity of “24,” which has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales. The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as “24” circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

“In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,” Lagouranis told me. “I worked with someone who used waterboarding”—an interrogation method involving the repeated near-drowning of a suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.” Some people, he said, “gave confessions. But they just told us what we already knew. It never opened up a stream of new information.” If anything, he said, “physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.”

(Forgive the lengthy excerpt, but do read the rest, as well as Mayer's other work. She's one of the absolute best on this subject.)

Numerous conservatives, including Justice Antonin Scalia, have cited 24 as if it were real, while completely ignoring both the history of torture (and its inefficacy) and the actual records of the Bush administration. (Many journalists did/do the same.) While the list of torture opponents includes many military conservatives, political right-wingers have even held conferences about 24, and lauded Surnow.

One of my concerns about Zero Dark Thirty is that because it purports to be "reality" and has racked up awards, it could do harm in the real world, just as 24 did, but possibly worse. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and while I'm personally fine with discussing Zero Dark Thirty both as a thriller on its own merits and how the usual torture apologists/proponents will exploit it as propaganda, I'm sincerely dismayed by the latter. I'm dismayed by the whole state of affairs and that we need to keep arguing against torture, for goodness' sake. (As Garry Trudeau said in a strip, it used to be a gimme.) I'm further concerned that people who should know better have swallowed dangerous bullshit uncritically, because that has consistently been the case with the torture "debate." Joe Scarborough has claimed that Zero Dark Thirty vindicates waterboarding, and he's far from alone. This response was utterly predictable, and it's different from the sadly common misappropriation of art and pop culture for political purposes in that the real-life stakes are higher.

Here's the thing, cycling back to 24 as an example. I fully support Joel Surnow's right to make torture porn. But I also feel entitled to judge it bad art – and accuracy can play into that assessment. I watched the show through every season, and it was originally impressively crafted if occasionally ludicrous. The creators eventually added hedges – Jack was an expert interrogator who could get the truth through torture, but mere mortals couldn't. As it went on, the series added caricatural, anti-torture politicians as bad guys (or at least dupes). The torture scenes became not just inaccurate, but very poorly written, with at least one villain taunting the heroes, 'I know my rights' and 'you can’t do anything,' and then the tough guy (a female agent, in this case) torturing the truth out of him. It wasn't just torture porn, it was clumsy, artless propaganda… or if we grant that wasn't Surnow's intention, it was paint-by-numbers plotting, utterly predictable and laughably cartoonish despite the show's pretensions of being gritty and realistic. It was as if the staff had become burned-out hacks unable to even shock anymore. (Side note: earlier in the series, Jack Bauer gets played by a deliberate false torture confession – just as Batman does in The Dark Knight. Additionally, Bauer was always willing to stand trial for his actions. The right-wing fans of the show always ignore such things.) Personally, I object to torture on moral and pragmatic grounds, and I object to misleading depictions of torture on aesthetic and moral grounds. As a writer, in a work that aspires to some quality, you do have a moral/artistic obligation to do your damn research. If you explicitly aspire to realism, you do have an artistic obligation to be in the realm of reality. I'm not talking about artistic license and narrative challenges. William Goldman has written some great stuff about quandaries he's faced (especially with A Bridge Too Far). Similarly, for the show Rome, their historical advisor said the goal was to be 'authentic rather than strictly accurate.' I'm talking about getting the essence completely wrong in a way that damages the whole work, perhaps not fatally, but significantly. I would rate Zero Dark Thirty as much better made than the last season of 24, but addressing its accuracy is a valid form of critique on aesthetic versus political grounds. (Fellini said it was better to destroy than to create what is inessential, Kurosawa said the duty of the artist was never to look away, and Jean Luc Godard once quipped that "a dolly shot is a moral statement"… Moral issues are hardly foreign to the creation of art.)

If Boal and Bigelow were ignorant of these dynamics – of the response to 24 and the lack of reality behind the show – it doesn't speak well of them. Alternatively, if they knew and choose to ignore all that, it doesn't speak well of them, either.

Artistic Choices and Responses

In Boal and Bigelow's defense, some of their intent simply might not have come across, and I want to feature some of their explanations and responses. For instance, after a series of torture scenes, the screenplay has:

Try to understand the concept here.
I have time, you don't. I have other
things to do, you don't.
It's cool that you're strong. I
respect that, I do. But in the end,
everybody breaks, bro. It's biology.

Dan and Maya exit.

They've learned nothing.

(As covered earlier, Dan's words about 'breaking' are not quite true. The character Dan might well believe this, which is fine… although no one in the film contradicts him.) Regardless, Boal's script direction suggests he wanted to convey that this session, or torture overall, was ineffective. And the film supports this view somewhat. Interspersed with the torture scenes are other terrorist attacks. These serve to ratchet up the tension, but also suggest (if one stops to think) that the interrogations aren't working.

Boal made the same point in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (read the whole thing for a fair hearing):

In another of Ammar's brutal interrogation scenes, however, he reveals no information about an imminent plot in Saudi Arabia. Cut to bearded Arab men laying siege to an apartment house in Khobar on May 29, 2004. "Cinematically—and I don't think these guys are critics and know what the f--- they're talking about—but cinematically it's not a case for the efficacy of torture to show them trying to prevent an attack and then the attack happens," Mr. Boal says.

This is a valid point by Boal, but let's not forget the stock (and effective) thriller elements to this structure, either, nor the way the film opens and frames these issues, as discussed by Karen Greenberg: "First, Rouse Fear."

Still, this is how some people have interpreted the film. Spencer Ackerman makes one of the stronger statements: "Zero Dark Thirty does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet." Lance Mannion read the film similarly: "Act One: Torture doesn’t work. Act Two: Let’s try it Maya’s way. Act Three: Maya’s way works. At any rate, that’s how it went in the movie I saw."

I noted these components, too. Nor did I want a didactic, artless film. However, I can't ultimately square this reading with the scene where the movie's heroes, the CIA agents, scoff in disbelief, disgust and betrayal at Obama's "prissy" opposition to torture. Meanwhile, two of the central dramas in real life, the Bush administration orders to commit torture, and the opposition to that, are nowhere to be seen. Not. At. All. As discussed earlier, these choices do not add up to a neutral viewpoint. (The first element is self-contained in the film, while the second and third elements depend on some degree of outside knowledge.)

The film is nuanced enough it allows for Ackerman's and Mannion's readings (and more self-serving interpretations such as Scarborough's "Go Torture! And don't hold my political party accountable!" partisan bullshit), but I think Greg Mitchell's assessment is reasonable:

In summary, I’d simply say that those picking apart various scenes and pointing to key details in the film are not wrong in suggesting that the film’s depiction of torture helping to get bin Laden is muddled at best—but the overall impression by the end, for most viewers, probably will be: Yes, torture played a key (if not the key) role.

Back to Boal:

On torture, Mr. Boal reverts to the factual default of a working journalist he once was. (Raised in Greenwich Village, he began his journalism career at the Village Voice and has written for Playboy, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones in parallel with his career in film.) "If you left that out, you'd be whitewashing history," he says. "Those things happened. They were done by Americans, some lawfully, some not." The White House approved, the Justice Department wrote the legal memos, Congress was briefed. Waterboarding was stopped by the middle of the Bush era, and President Obama closed the CIA's interrogation unit.

This is mostly true, but "Congress was briefed" is awfully cursory if not deceptive; as Barton Gellman's stellar book Angler shows, Dick Cheney and his staff (most of all David Addington) routinely kept information from Congress, especially about torture. Members of Congress receiving classified briefings can object privately but are generally bound from speaking out publically. On top of all this, multiple laws against torture were broken, and as covered above, government agencies largely whitewashed those culpable. The main point is that what "happened" was by no means a consensus decision, and it was challenged at multiple levels.

Related to "whitewashing history," a key line from Boal:

"We tried to avoid partisanship—I couldn't have tried harder to avoid partisan politics," he says.

Bigelow has said something similar to Boal about whitewashing history. But no one has criticized them simply for depicting torture. They've criticized them for decontextualizing it. They've criticized them for whitewashing the torture program of the people driving it – the same people who have consistently fought to conceal what they did and to escape any responsibility for it. Unfortunately, that winds up being a partisan position (by default if not intent) because of the subject matter. As discussed earlier, there are conservatives who oppose torture, and torture should not be a "partisan" issue, but the Republican Party as a whole and Beltway "centrists" have opposed investigations and accountability. Roughly speaking, one faction in the "debate" opposes torture on moral and pragmatic grounds and supports transparency and accountability, and the other side excuses torture (to varying degrees), wants to keep the truth classified and wants to prevent any accountability. I don't see how you can seriously approach this subject while ignoring those dynamics, or failing to notice that your sources come overwhelmingly from one faction, or not noticing how much those sources are omitting. While I'm sympathetic to the impulse to avoid politics, especially for artists, a glaring fact of the "true history" in this case centers on political figures ordering torture (and subsequently trying to cover it up, and claiming it was legal, and necessary, and effective). Perhaps more scrutiny was in order?

As Peter Rainer argues:

What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story. (To no avail, I might add: The film is controversial anyway.) President George W. Bush is never shown, ditto Dick Cheney, Iraq is AWOL, and President Obama is only glimpsed in a 2008 campaign interview. This is a bit like making a movie about the D-Day invasion without referencing FDR or Eisenhower.

Matt Taibbi, who also convincingly argues that we're meant to see the CIA agents as heroes, adds to this:

Here's my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was "honest," but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was "honest" about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else.

Back to Boal, who at the time was under threat of congressional investigation:

Mr. Boal is offering no apologies. "I think it's my right, by the way, if I firmly believe that bin Laden was killed by aliens, to depict that. And I should be able to put on there, 'This is 100% true and anyone who doubts it is themselves abducted by aliens' . . . without a Senate investigation into where I got that notion. Right? In this country, isn't that legit?"

I'm completely on the side of Boal that he shouldn't be investigated (thankfully that was dropped), and that he and Bigelow have the right to make any film they choose to make. However, let's also note that a movie that earnestly argued that bin Laden was killed by aliens would be a crap film. I think the evidence is pretty strong that Bigelow and Boal were insufficiently skeptical and diligent and were 'seduced by a source,' all of which allowed them to tell a story they found appealing. These are valid grounds for criticism. The serious critiques of Zero Dark Thirty do not deny the artistic rights of Bigelow and Boal, only their choices.

Steve Coll, in his excellent piece on the film, "'Disturbing' & 'Misleading'" puts it well:

Boal and Bigelow have offered two main responses to the criticism they have received. One is that as dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative, they must be granted a degree of artistic license.

That is unarguable, of course, and yet the filmmakers cannot, on the one hand, claim authenticity as journalists while, on the other, citing art as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden, and therefore might be, for some, defensible as public policy. Boal and Bigelow—not their critics—first promoted the film as a kind of journalism. Bigelow has called Zero Dark Thirty a “reported film.” Boal told a New York Times interviewer before the controversy erupted, “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history.”

(It's worth reading the rest if you haven't yet.) Meanwhile, Emily Bazelon notes that:

I do think the movie reads as pro-torture, and as someone who opposes the practice, I wish that it didn’t. But it’s a problem of emphasis and degree, not absolute falsity. And in dissecting the movie, it’s only fair to keep in mind a valid point about torture that makes liberals uncomfortable: We can’t prove it never produces useful intelligence, or, probably, that it had no impact at all on the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

To Bazelon's second point, about the efficacy of torture: Fair enough, although I think the background section above (especially item letter "I") addresses this; that still wouldn't excuse torture or make it wise or legal. As to her first point, she's correct about Zero Dark Thirty having some nuance. But I also think she's right about this:

Why did Bigelow and Boal make the fraught decision to suggest that waterboarding was crucial to the capture of Bin Laden? Asked about the role torture plays in the movie, they have been somewhat disingenuous. “We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program,” Boal told [Dexter] Filkins. Bigelow said “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” I think she’s fooling herself. Dick Cheney probably will like this movie, not because it completely vindicates his version of events—that torture was essential to the war on terror and President Obama was a naive fool to shut it down—but because you emerge from the movie feeling that torture did factor into Maya’s hunch that the courier would lead to Bin Laden.

My own theory is that with perhaps more access to the real-life CIA agents who hunted Bin Laden than any journalist has had, Boal and Bigelow adopted their sources’ interpretation, in which the “small role” played by torture looms larger than it does in the journalistic accounts. The filmmakers didn’t set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists. But they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they’re in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them. (Surely it didn’t hurt that the scenes with Amar are as riveting—as pure cinema—as they are disturbing.)

Let's return to Boal, speaking about torture and abuse practices:

"I didn't support them, I didn't say I think they were moral, I have no idea if they were effective or not," says Mr. Boal. "My job as a storyteller is to be as honest as I can be with the underlying materials."

…Wow. I'd like to give Mark Boal the benefit of the doubt, and part of me hopes this was mostly an intemperate statement. Boal has in several interviews, including the linked one, said that he opposes torture but isn't sure about the ticking time bomb situation. I'd label him as "torture-curious" or "torture-unsure," certainly not a torture apologist. But yet again, I don't think he's studied the subject enough, and this has hurt his artistic choices. Writers do research. "I have no idea if [torture techniques] were effective or not." If that's honestly the case, then Boal had no fucking business writing a script where the answer to that is central. That's especially true given how serious torture is, the heated political fights over it, the legal jeopardy surrounding figures in this story, how prominent the film was certain to be, the influence depictions of torture in pop culture have had on reality, and the film's claims to being a true account. It also contradicts Boal's own indignant claims that the film has been misread and actually shows that torture doesn't work. (If his position is instead sequence-dependent and that sometimes torture works and sometimes it doesn't, then the criticisms of the film on this very point, its depiction of torture's efficacy, are sound. Clarity and ambiguity are mutually exclusive defenses.) 'I don't know if torture worked or not, maybe it did, maybe it didn't, we've made the film somewhat ambiguous; you decide' isn't artistic courage – it's irresponsible and gutless. I can defend Bigelow and Boal to a point, but I'm sorry, that is reckless hubris.

Personally, I'll be interested to see the documentary Manhunt, based on Peter Bergen's book on the hunt for bin Laden, as both the book and the doc have received good reviews. Perhaps some subjects are just better covered in documentary form. (Case in point: Several excellent documentaries on torture and abuse exist. Fewer narrative pieces do, but among them are the novel and the '80s film version of 1984 and a superb episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

(The Long-Delayed) Conclusion

This is far from my most smoothly written post, and certainly isn't a concise piece. Apologies for its sprawling and occasionally repetitive nature. I do hope, however, that it's comprehensive enough, and fair enough (that opinions are supported and other points of view are acknowledged) to give some food for thought.

(A WWII-era poster.)

1 comment:

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I elected not to watch "Zero Dark Thirty"; possibly I am becoming "soft" in old age, but I find I can no longer endure any "entertainment" venue that torments me with what I find nigh unendurable in reality. And then, as you point out, some viewers thought it meant "torture works"...as a good blogger, Stonekettle Station said, "You can't reason with unreasonable people" and that was another bit I could do without.

I also didn't watch "24" after about six episodes. Not only did I find Bauer criminal, but I disliked the story line constantly involving risk to his own family. I see this more and more on television shows and think it is meant to justify some pretty nasty stuff, as if to say "Hey, this is WAR, and look even our loved ones are at risk, so get out of our way!" This sickens me. It screams "There are no innocents!" at me and opens the floodgates of brutality.

I dislike the way television feels like programming....and no, not of the images on the screen. I also eschew the so-called "reality" shows that seem bent on teaching everyone to make false alliances and turn on each other for the "win"...gladiatorial contests disgust me even if blood free.