Zero Dark Thirty – An Encore of Bush Administration Talking Points?


The torture debate is making an encore performance with the buzz around “Zero Dark Thirty”, a fictional account of Osama Bin Laden’s capture, based on first-hand accounts reportedly from the CIA.

If anything exemplifies the problems that come with a fictional account of a real life event, it would be G. Roger Denson’s assertion   that the point of contention in Zero Dark Thirty is “verified” by the Media Record of Legislators and CIA Officials.

He argues that the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee and “a coterie of human rights journalists, activists and artists, seemed to compose a unified front against the makers of the film. “  By his logic, this is unusual because “the groups and the individuals involved usually have anything but a common aim.”

Having different aims doesn’t change the facts.

Denson claims that in the weeks surrounding Bin Laden’s capture “the government, the intelligence community, the media, and the public displayed a wide variance of views on waterboarding.  This includes a number of high-placed sources attesting – in some cases celebrating – waterboarding as the technique by which the intelligence agents obtained the name of the courier who was bin Laden’s link to the outside world.”

Many of the “high-placed” sources Denson refers to were members of the Bush Administration and the media that he cites most frequently is conservative.

Among others, Denson relies on statements made by Donald Rumsfeld .Rumsfeld who swung both ways on the question which rather depended  on who asked him and when. During an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox,  Rumsfeld claimed water boarding lead to critically important intel that led to Bin Laden. He told Newsmax  the information that led to Bin laden came from “normal interrogation approaches”. So just how do Rumsfeld’s contradictory statements ‘verify” that torture led us to bin Laden?

In 2008, former CIA Director, Michael Hayden, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that three people were water boarded; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zabaydah, and Abd Al Rahim al-Nashiri Khalid.  The fact that KSM, Abu Zabaydah and Abdd Al Rahim al-Nashiri Khalid were water boarded is not in dispute.  However, there are contradicting views on if the waterboarding resulted in any useful information, let alone information that led us to Osama Bin Laden.

A report in the Washington Post on the effects of waterboarding on KSM contradicts itself, as noted by Media Matters.

In the case of Abu Zabaydah, there are contradictory claims by the FBI and the CIA as to whether conventional (legal) methods were effective or “enhanced interrogation methods” (torture) were effective.  I’ll get into this further very shortly.

When it comes to Abd Al Rahim al-Nashiri Khalid, the only thing in the public record is that he was water boarded.  If any information, actionable or otherwise, was acquired as a result of torturing him, that remains to be seen.

Denson refers to this exchange between Matt Lauer and former President, George W. Bush.

LAUER: You talk about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. There’s another guy you write about in the book, Abu Zabeta, another high profile terror suspect. He was waterboarded. (sic) By the way, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, (sic) according to most reports, 183 times. This guy was waterboarded (sic) more than 80 times. And you explain that his understanding of Islam was that he had to resist interrogation up to a certain point and waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold and fulfill his religious duty and then cooperate. And you have a quote from him. “You must do this for all the brothers.” End quote.
BUSH: Yeah. Isn’t that interesting?

LAUER: Abu Zabeta really went to someone and said, “You should waterboard (sic) all the brothers?

BUSH: He didn’t say that. He said, “You should give brothers the chance to be able to fulfill their duty.” I don’t recall him saying you should water — I think it’s — I think it’s an assumption in your case.

LAUER; “Yeah, I — when You must do this for –”

BUSH:” But…”

LAUER: …”All the brothers.” So to let them get to that threshold?

BUSH: “Yeah, that’s what– that’s how I interpreted. I — look, first of all we used this technique on three people. Captured a lot of people and used it on three. We gained value — information to protect the country. And it was the right thing to do as far as I’m concerned.”

Bush acknowledges that KSM and Abu Zabeta were water boarded and as a result allegedly obtained information to protect the country.  Even if we take the former President at his word, his comments don’t support the thesis that torture led us to Bin Laden.

According to  Denson, Leon Panetta told Brian Williams “enhanced interrogation techniques were used to extract information that led to the mission’s success.”

Here’s the pertinent section in the transcript of that interview.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Can you confirm that it was as a result of water boarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after Bin Laden?

LEON PANETTA: Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here… It’s a little difficult to say it was due just to one source of information that we got… I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: So finer point, one final time, enhanced interrogation techniques — which has always been kind of a handy euphemism in these post-9/11 years — that includes water boarding?

LEON PANETTA: That’s correct.

Panetta acknowledges that some of the detainees were water boarded and he notes that there were a lot of sources’  information which is far from a verification that torture led us to Bin Laden.

Denson also claims that the absence of a denial by Press Secretary Jay Carney on May 3rd, 2011 somehow constitutes a verification.

Then Denson turns to  Representative Peter King (R-N.Y) and an op-ed by Michael Mukasey in the Wall Street Journal as verification that waterboarding KSM led us to Bin Laden.

Yet, as noted above, there are contradictory accounts about whether waterboarding KSM led to any actionable intelligence. Let alone any information that is said to lead to Bin Laden.

In short, Denson claims that statements made by Bush Administration officials, including the former president, somehow verify that torture led the Obama Administration to Osama Bin Laden.  Except, these officials were not in a position to know what sources and information the Obama Administration used or in fact the methods by which they obtained information.

Moreover, people involved in interrogations during the Bush Administration, differed on which techniques produced anything resembling useful information and which did not.

During an interview on 60 Minutes,  (originally aired April 29th, 2012) Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA’s former director of the National Clandestine Service  in the Bush Administration, tried to make the case that torture under the Bush Administration led to Bin Laden’s courier.

Except, the FBI disagreed  with his account about the effects of “traditional” (and legal) interrogation techniques vs. the ones used by the CIA, which included water boarding, “insult slapping”, “stress positions” and sleep deprivation.

He (Rodriguez) says once Abu Zubaydah became compliant, the harsh treatment stopped and he became a fountain of information. But the FBI interrogators remember it differently.

Lesley Stahl: In fact, what they say is everything important that he gave up, he gave up to them before the harsher interrogation techniques kicked in.

Jose Rodriguez: Well, that is just not true. It’s not true.

Lesley Stahl: Well, now they say that. And you say, “It’s not true.” What am I supposed to think? I don’t know.

The FBI and CIA disagree and it’s impossible for us to resolve the argument because details of the interrogations remain classified.

Senators Diane Feinstein and Carl Levin issued a joint statement contradicting Rodriguez’s claims.  They also noted that he, among others who claimed that torture led to the raid on Bin Laden, had left government positions before the raid.

The fact that some people who had access to the totality of available information contradicted people who, at best, were only aware of some of that information would explain the contradictory accounts among government officials and members of the intelligence community.

If the test is consistency, Feinstein’s views are relatively consistent from the time of Bin Laden’s capture to her recent statements criticizing the movie.

When first asked about the role of torture in Bin Laden’s capture on May 3rd, 2011 Feinstein noted there wasn’t any evidence to substantiate the assertion that torture led us to Bin Laden.

Feinstein, joined by Carl Levin and John McCain wrote a letter  to Michael Lynton, the Chairman and CEO of Sony criticizing the movie’s suggestion that torture played a central role in Bin Laden’s capture.  Their position was virtually identical to the one held by Feinstein in May 2011, and based on the review of CIA records on which Feinstein based her earlier conclusions.

Michael Morrell  Acting Director of the CIA weighed in on the movie by issuing a statement in which he raised similar objections.

Denson’s general thesis that members of the government and the intelligence community verify that torture led us to Bin Laden falls apart on several grounds.  He relied heavily on statements by former President Bush and officials in the Bush Administration who weren’t in a position to know what information, in fact, led us to Bin Laden.  While Leon Panetta acknowledged that some people were tortured and information was acquired from a variety of sources then it’s a stretch to claim that he said torture led us to Bin Laden.

The FBI disputes Jose Rodriguez’s claim that torture worked on Zubaydah.  We simply have no information on what, if any, intelligence was acquired as a result of waterboarding Abd Al Rahim al-Nashiri Khalid.

Of the people who claim that torture led us to Bin Laden, none of them have access to all the information. Those who have that access to the records and have reviewed them dispute the claims.  As CBS pointed out in its report on the Hernandez interview, the documentation that would confirm or discredit these claims are classified.  The report resulting from a review of the CIA’s documents is also classified.

We’re left asking ourselves do we believe people who have part of the information? Do we believe people who have all of the facts? Do we reserve judgment unless or until we are in a position to look at the facts for ourselves?

Image: News Tribe


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