This doesn't quite qualify as breaking news for those who tracked the extraordinary labyrinth of intelligence that emerged in the days following the 2011 Abbottabad raid, but the subject of US interrogation policy is again generating controversy in advance of the release of 'Zero Dark Thirty,' a film that dramatizes the bin Laden mission. Writing in today's Washington Post, a former top CIA counter-terrorism officer sets the record straight on what measures were, and were not, employed to help bring down the world's most infamous terrorist. Jose Rodriguez -- who made headlines last year when his book exposed Nancy Pelosi's lies about the Agency's interrogation practices -- argues that 'Zero Dark Thirty' grossly exaggerates the severity of American tactics when questioning captured terrorists, but accurately conveys the vital role enhanced interrogation techniques played in locating Osama :
The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years. The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program that I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention. To give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face, CIA officers had to receive written authorization from Washington. No one was hung from ceilings. The filmmakers stole the dog-collar scenes from the abuses committed by Army personnel at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. No such thing was ever done at CIA “black sites.” The CIA did waterboard three of the worst terrorists on the planet — Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri — in an effort to get them to cooperate. Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used on the three men, who were on medical gurneys. The procedure was totally unlike the one seen in the movie but was consistent with the same tactic used, without physical or psychological damage, on tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel as part of their training.
Most Americans probably think waterboarding was stopped by President Obama once he took office in 2009. Few know that the technique was last used in 2003, when Obama was still an unknown state senator in Illinois. Inspired perhaps more by past movies than first-hand accounts, “Zero Dark Thirty” shows detainees being asked a question, tortured a little, asked another question and then tortured some more. That did not happen. Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.
I think most Americans would find it absurd that interrogators needed written permission from Washington to slap a terrorist in the face. Despite what many on the Left would have you believe, the public is actually quite amenable to the idea of using unpleasant interrogation methods to bring violent jihadists into compliance -- even beyond the scope of Bush-era practices, Indeed, many liberals now embrace many elements of the Bush/Cheney 'global war on terror,' to which they once feigned virulent opposition. Although Rodriguez asserts that spontaneous, widespread waterboarding never happened, he does confirm that a series of approved EIT's were used on detainees who provided essential strands of intel:
The film suggests that waterboarding directly contributed to obtaining vital information about bin Laden’s courier — a break that eventually led to the al-Qaeda leader. Opponents of the CIA are quick to insist that waterboarding played no role in tracking him down. Both the movie and those critics are wrong. The first substantive information about the courier came in 2004 from a detainee who received some enhanced interrogation techniques but was not waterboarded. Although we had heard the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, until that time we were unaware of the central role he played in bin Laden’s communications. Subsequently, as we always did, we checked out this information with other detainees. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who had been waterboarded, was by then cooperating with us to some extent. He denied any knowledge of the courier, but so adamantly that we knew we were on to something. We then intercepted secret messages that Mohammed was sending to other detainees, ordering them to say nothing about al-Kuwaiti. After obtaining this essential lead on the courier, years of meticulous intelligence work followed. Having the black sites and compliant terrorists allowed us to repeatedly go back to the detainees to check leads, ask follow-up questions and clarify information. Without that capacity, we would have been lost.
A bipartisan clique of Senators recently blasted the film for depicting torture as a successful tool in our nation's intelligence-gathering arsenal. Rodriguez agrees that genuine torture has no place in the American national security playbook, but contends that these critics are conflating "torture" with the harsh methods that were employed, and that bore significant fruit. President Obama has received, and deserves, a great deal of approbation for bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. The dangerous, top-secret, late-night raid occurred on his watch, on his orders. But President Bush deserves at least equal credit for this outcome. Three of his most contentious and impugned policies reaped crucial pieces of information, without which the real-life 'Zero Dark Thirty' episode wouldn't have been possible: (1) A detainee at our Guantanamo Bay prison facility provided the first indication that bin Laden used a trusted personal courier; this individual eventually proved to be the cipher that unlocked the mystery of his boss' whereabouts. (2) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, was "broken" by waterboarding. His words and actions confirmed the existence and importance of the courier. This was also true of another high-value prisoner, Abu Faraj Al-Libi, who was held at a CIA "black site" location. (3) KSM and the others only betrayed the courier's pseudonym, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. It look information extracted from a captured member of Al Qaeda in Iraq to ascertain Kuwaiti's real name, which ultimately led US intelligence officials to the urban compound in Pakistan.
One is welcome to argue that the ends don't justify the means, and that establishing Gitmo, using EITs and waging the Iraq war were all wrong-headed policies. But one cannot argue -- as liberals frequently do -- that these policies were ineffective, and that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the broader war on terror. (I've also never quite understood the mentality of those who find lethal drone strikes unobjectionable, but who denounce hard interrogation measures as a stain on our national conscience). 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a piece of entertainment. It weaves many facts into a piece of fiction crafted for public consumption, which is what non-documentary movies do. If it continues to trigger a national debate about actual policies, it's important to discern and separate the truth from the artistic license. The brutal, ad hoc torture is fiction. The efficacy of EIT's is fact. The film opens nationwide next week.