Review: Secrets, Politics and Torture vs. Zero Dark Thirty

Last night I watched the Frontline program Secrets, Politics and Torture: The secret history of the fight over the CIA’s controversial interrogation methods, widely criticized as torture that I alerted readers to. The show, broadcast last night on PBS, looked at how the US government has indulged in the most brutal acts of torture and lied about it. For those who missed it, these programs are usually later available online for at least a brief time and may be shown again on PBS. [Update: Thanks to reader lanir, the link to see the 54-minutes documentary is here.]

The documentary begins with showing director Kathryn Bigelow on the red carpet at the Academy Awards ceremony talking about her film Zero Dark Thirty and how it was based on the true story of how Osama bin Laden was found and killed.

Zero Dark Thirty is based on two central ideas of the bin Laden story. One is that it was torture that generated the key piece of information that led the clever sleuths at the CIA to locate the hideout of bin Laden in Pakistan. The second is about the daring raid carried out by the US Special Forces who went deep into Pakistan, killed bin Laden, and left with his body, all without the Pakistani authorities, a nation that has one of the largest and most sophisticated militaries in the world and that has been on war alert for decades because of border tensions with India and Afghanistan, having the faintest idea that their airspace had been violated in this way.

The documentary Secrets, Politics and Torture debunks the first idea, showing that torture did not get the CIA that information. In fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s analysis of internal documents and a secret internal report commissioned by Leon Panetta (the head of the CIA), both reveal that while torture produced no useful information, the two psychologists who ran the torture program got over $80 million dollars for implementing the most barbaric practices that caused even some of the observers to feel sick. What the documentary shows is that the government tortured, lied about it, manufactured bogus legal justifications for it, destroyed evidence, covered up all their crimes, and gave immunity to the torturers and those who authorized it. Even worse things have not yet been revealed because the Obama administration has colluded in this crime by obstructing release of the full senate report.

Diane Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and who has access to classified information about the CIA, says she walked out of Zero Dark Thirty after about 20 minutes because she could not stand it, the film was so false. And we have to remember that Feinstein is by no means a raging civil libertarian but is by and large a supporter of the national security state.

It is noteworthy that the various national security reporters in the documentary said that the CIA cooperated a lot with the filmmakers and gave them all kinds of secret information (the kind the government vigorously prosecutes whistleblowers for revealing) while they resolutely obstructed all efforts by them to get at the truth of the torture program. As Jane Mayer of the New Yorker said, the CIA is in the seduction business and Hollywood filmmakers are the easiest to seduce.

This documentary was shown at a key moment because Seymour Hersh’s blockbuster article released last week has now debunked the second central element of the film, the story of the assault on the compound where bin Laden was, that shows president Obama, the US national security apparatus, and US Special Forces in the most flattering light, a story that was swallowed uncritically by the establishment media. This one-two punch should effectively sink the credibility of both the film and the entire story on which it was based.

And yet, despite massive amounts of evidence that the government will brazenly lie, the mainstream media took the familiar ‘kill the messenger’ approach that is reflexive to them whenever it is charged that they once again fell prey to the government’s propaganda, though past examples of such duplicity are now so many and so well known that it hardly seems worthwhile to list them. They have devoted much energy to discrediting Hersh personally, though he has a far better record for reliability and credibility than the US government or the mainstream media. The government has repeatedly proven itself to consist of chronic, shameless, self-serving liars, and the establishment media has shown itself to be accomplices and enablers of such lies.

As one example, Russell Brandom lists the eight biggest lies the CIA told about torture. Why, in the face of this history, so many people are still willing to take the government’s version of controversial events is puzzling. As Jack Murkinson says:

It’s worth wondering why, even if people don’t believe Hersh’s account, they would side so readily with the version put forth by the U.S. government, which—to put it mildly—has a lengthy history of deception. Just last year, the CIA was being raked over the coals for its systematic campaign of lies surrounding its torture program. Why would we put it past this same agency to tell something less than the full truth about one of the most murky and consequential moments in recent history?

I suspect that the fact that so many people are still willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt over its critics, even though the latter have much better records for truth-telling, says something about both the authoritarian mentality (“I must support the national security state whoever is running it”) and well as the partisan one (“I like Obama and don’t want to believe that he can and will lie to me”).

The arguments against Hersh’s version of events tend to focus on doubts of this or that aspect of his story, like one reader who said that that he is skeptical because Republicans hate Obama and would have seized on the lie to discredit him. But that is easily explained. Debunking the official bin Laden story also requires discrediting a story of a glorious US military achievement. The Republicans may hate Obama and fight him vigorously on some issues but they both worship at the altar of the Military as God. The cardinal rule of US politics is that one never, ever disparages the military and that is why any story that makes the military looks good is taken at face value and protected until it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. Two recent examples are the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the death of Pat Tillman.

Director Bigelow, so willing to talk to the media when she was talking up the realism of her film, has now gone silent when asked about the fact that the central elements of story she sold as being largely based on fact are now so discredited that her film should really be considered fiction.

But you have to give the Obama administration and the CIA some credit. They clearly understand the power of film as propaganda and seized on the opportunity presented by the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to cement in the public’s mind a version of history that, though likely largely false, makes them and the US military look good and it will take a lot to dislodge that.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    the two psychologists who ran the torture program got over $80 million dollars for implementing the most barbaric practices that caused even some of the observers to feel sick

    Yeah, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Crimes against humanity and war profiteering. Am I missing anything?

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    So nothing new under the sun. Some years ago I saw parts of the film Black Hawk Down (only parts, because it was running on TV in a pub, and I didn’t pay much attention to it) about military action in Mogadishu. It was whitewashing American troops, even though the whole Somalia operation was a failure.

    Hollywood’s “liberal bias” is bullshit. They need a permission from Pentagon each time they need to borrow military equipment, which means that Americans will always be the heroes in a Hollywood war. There is even a movie where Americans crack the German Enigma code, after an American submarine discovers an Enigma machine.

  3. Holms says

    This one-two punch should effectively sink the credibility of both the film and the entire story on which it was based.

    You’d think so, but just watch as war crimes apologists dismiss such pesky facts by e.g. casting aspersions towards Hersh’s character, viewable here.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Holms @ # 3 -- Your link goes to the comments thread of our esteemed host’s previous post on the new Hersh exposé.

  5. Holms says

    Yes, intentionally, as it contained an example of my point: rebutting by casting aspersions rather than engaging with data.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Holms @ # 5 -- Oops, my misunderstanding: when you wrote “viewable”, I thought you meant a video.

  7. lorn says

    The bugaboo of conspiracy theories, and theorists like Hursch, is that once they figure a government lied they assume everything said by government is a lie. Knowing this one of the easiest ways to get away with something is to simply tell the truth. Which, based upon the best evidence seems to be that the Obama administration was telling the truth about main strokes of the Bin Laden raid.

    The fact is that sailors talk and no organization is immune to leaks. There is a whole lot of chatter and corroborating evidence, much of it dismissed as meaningless noise at the time, that only makes sense when you insert the existence of the raid. This against Hursch with a couple of shady sources, one citing hearsay, and both with clear motivation to polish their own image as insiders who ‘Of course, we knew about he whole thing ahead of time and cooperated with the plan’. A far more favorable spin than the alternative.

    Lassi Hippeläinen @2:
    There is even a movie where Americans crack the German Enigma code, after an American submarine discovers an Enigma machine.

    Simple verifiable fact: Capture of a machine does not crack the code. In fact capture of the machine doesn’t allow you to read existing, recorded, code. That isn’t how the machines work. You need to have the setting of the machine used at the time to code the message to decode the message.

    That said having the machine to hand allows code breakers to see some of the underlying structure of the code even as they cannot use the machine to directly decode messages sent. Knowing that is indeed important if you want to crack the code. Turing’s work was to develop an early computer that could run through all the possibilities fast enough to make decoding a practical matter.

    Again, it is just as much a distortion of reality to assume the the government is always lying as to assume it is always telling the truth. Humans lie. Governments lie. It isn’t as if the Pakistani government, ISI, and officials are fountains of truth while US officials are inherent liars. The ISI has a long history of playing both sides against the middle. As with most lies there is a grain of truth. Yes, likely someone within the ISI knew Bin Laden was at that compound. But we cannot confuse compartmented knowledge with institutional knowledge.

    As with most important issues there are degrees of truth and people lie for a huge variety of reasons, personal, professional, idealogical, and organizational. Sometimes simply because they can. And, of course, the most damaging lies are told by people who think they are telling the truth and the lies we tell to ourselves.

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